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The "X-Men" movie franchise, now up to its seventh film if you count the two "Wolverine" solo adventures, has had a lot of ups and downs over the past fourteen years. Nobody likes "The Last Stand" or "Origins." The continuity has become a snarled mess. The newest installment, "X-men: Days of Future Past," is best enjoyed if the viewer is familiar with the rest of the series, and yet it blithely ignores major developments from those films. Last summer's "The Wolverine," included a mid-credits teaser sequence that set up "Days of Future Past," for instance, but it doesn't actually connect to anything that goes on in this movie.

And yet, "Days of Future Past" makes all that history and all that interconnectivity work for it in ways that the competing Marvel Cinematic Universe films have never managed. I enjoyed "Days of Future Past" more than any superhero sequel in ages, and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that it's been quite a few years since we've last properly seen many of the characters as they were originally depicted - "Last Stand" in 2006 was the last to feature most of the cast of the original "X-men" films - and in both of the eras that are depicted in "Days of Future Past," a lot of time has passed and a lot has happened to our heroes.

In 2023, we have a dystopian future where nightmarish automatons called Sentinels have nearly exterminated mutants and a good chunk of humanity. Among the survivors are Magneto (Ian McKellan), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), and Shadowcat (Ellen Page). In a last ditch attempt to beat the Sentinels, Shadowcat sends Wolverine's consciousness back in time fifty years to his body in 1973, to stop the Sentinels from ever being created. To do this, he needs the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who we met in "First Class," to stop the assassination and martyrdom of the Sentinels' creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the conflicted shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

Despite hardly any of these characters looking like they've aged, the "First Class" gang is now a decade older and more cynical, grappling with the tail-end of the Vietnam War era and the fallout of a lot of historical and personal tragedies. The original trilogy's present-day characters have been flung even farther into the future, eking out their survival in a hellish nightmare world. It doesn't matter if the little details between all the different films don't match up because the "Terminator" -esque story is strong enough, and all the important characters and their circumstances are well established enough that "Days of Future Past" largely works on its own apart from everything that came before.

It's good to have director Bryan Singer back, who is a deft hand with both the action sequences and the melodrama. While "Days of Future Past" does have the large-scale set piece we see at the end of all big-budget superhero films these days, the outcome actually hinges on some very intimate character interactions. James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in particular shoulder a lot of the weight. I was also happy to see Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique getting a big boost in screen time and narrative importance. The movie is a little lacking in female characters, but Lawrence steals every scene she's in, and at this point she's the definitive Mystique.

The vastly overpowered cast, full of Oscar winners and RSC vets, keep the movie humming along a very human scale, and from becoming too much of a slug-fest. Not that the slugging isn't a lot of fun. There are a couple of stand-out effects sequences, including a jailbreak lead by a speedster mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and some brawling between the Sentinels and a group of future X-men that shows off multiple kinds of powers being used together. However, it's really the storytelling that makes the film, and I got much more out of the smaller moments of humor and the period touches when Wolverine finds himself back in the '70s.

I've always liked the way that the "X-men" franchise has such a strong sense of history to it, and "Days of Future Past" is perhaps the ultimate expression of this. Unlike other superhero serials that tend to drag their feet when it comes to showing any character progression or disrupting the status quo, these last few "X-men" films have embraced the passage of time. Actions have consequences that echo through the decades. People grow and change and die. The superheroes are not infallible and villains are not always wrong. This version of "Days of Future Past" depends on it.

I've seen some describe this latest "X-men" film as a reboot to some extent, because it negates some of the events that happened in earlier films, but I think that's a mistake. "Days of Future Past" is watchable if you haven't seen any of the past movies, but those who know the series and love these characters already are the ones who will get the most out of it. And they're the ones who will be the most appreciative of the complicated, but compelling time travel fable that Singer and Kinberg and Vaughn and Goldman and the rest are telling here.
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Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far.

So much has happened this year on "Person of Interest," I had to review recaps of some of the early episodes to get my bearings. At the end of the second season, we were still in the thick of the H.R. plot, Decima Technologies was still being set up as the next Big Bad, and Root was about to have an extended stay in a mental hospital. The face of Control hadn't been revealed, and Samaritan and Vigilance hadn't even been namechecked. More importantly, Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA were just about to come to light.

And now a year later, we're looking at a very different "Person of Interest," one that has not just undergone cast changes and moved on to new storylines, but one that is now actively grappling with the big issues that have always been at the heart of its premise. Snowden hasn't been referenced directly, though there have been a few minor references to the NSA surveillance programs, but we've definitely seen the position of the heroes shift from an uneasy alliance with the tools of the surveillance state that have made their work possible, to active adversity. Finch, Reese, Shaw, and their allies are now targets of a new and improved government-funded information-gathering system that threatens to create a full-blown Big Brother dystopia.

First, let's go back a couple of months to one of the biggest events in the show's run so far, the death of Detective Carter. Taraji P. Henson left the show, and "Person of Interest" gave her quite the sendoff. Not only did they take the opportunity to tie up all the storylines involving the New York criminal organizations and the corruption in the NYPD, but gave Henson, Clarke Peters, and Kevin Chapman some of their best moments. There were some choices I didn't agree with - throwing in a romantic connection between Reese and Carter so late didn't make sense for either character - but the episode directly following her death was one of the show's finest, with an especially strong final bow for Enrico Colantoni's crime boss, Elias.

All terribly pat, but the resolutions were satisfying enough. And it cleared the board to start pursuing a new set of villains starting at the midseason. Peter Collier (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Vigilance gave us urban terrorists with a sympathetic cause, John Greer (John Nolan) and Decima Technologies embodied evil corporations run amok, and the shady government unit that originally commissioned the Machine got a figurehead in Control, played by a deliciously malevolent Camryn Manheim. It would have been easy enough to leave them as shallow comic-book villains, but what I really admire about this show is that every one of them is given shades of gray. Control is a sadist, but a patriot at heart. Collier is likewise a true believer in his cause. Greer, amusingly, shares a lot in common with earlier versions of Root.

Speaking of Root, she and Shaw got the lion's share of the character development this year since Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi have joined the cast as regulars. I'm a little sad that Root became saner and more reasonable with every appearance under the influence of the Machine, but she's still enough of a rogue and wild card that I enjoy her contributions immensely. It was a good move to make her a largely independent force, often taking care of business for the Machine on separate missions, and only intersecting with Finch's group when necessary. Shaw was a harder sell, since she came off as such a blank in the second season. However, a couple of good episodes played up her emotional detachment as a defining trait, which works reasonably well, and her snarky rapport with Reese and bouts of trigger-happiness can be a lot of fun. If the Nolans have had trouble with their female characters in the past, it's not apparent here.

Accommodating the larger ensemble has meant less emphasis on the personal stories of our do-gooders and more emphasis on the plotting, and "Person of Interest" has always done a great job of it. At this point we've only had about half a season with the Samaritan storyline, where a competing surveillance system without the Machine's safeguards has been pitted against our heroes by Decima, through the manipulation of Vigilance and the government. However, it feels fully developed, exciting, and momentous, despite unfurling over only a handful of episodes. While the treatment of the surveillance issues has been shallow so far, at least the show has successfully introduced a very different point of view to consider, and I expect that we'll see improvements as the Sentinel story goes on. The finale was one of the highlights of the year, completely fleshing out Collier and delivering a game-changing set of events that have set up a promising Year Four.

There were weaker spots, as usual. "Person of Interest" stuck to its procedural format for most of the year, and some of the cases of the week were bland filler. Finch and Fusco got good spotlight episodes, but the ones for Reese felt off. He had a few minor storylines, including a brief leave of absence early in the season, that felt inconsequential. It's clear that Jim Caviezel is getting tired of the role, and the show's creators are taking steps to reduce his screen time so he can take on other work. Though considering his most recent big screen role in that Schwarzenegger and Stallone team-up pic, Caviezel shouldn't give up his day job.

"Person of Interest" remains one of the better action shows on network television, and is as strong as its ever been. In the beginning I wasn't sure it could sustain itself for so long, but a little reinvention and fresh blood has gone a long way toward keeping it feeling fresh and vital. And the timeliness of the subject matter doesn't hurt either.

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Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far, and the recent "Captain America" movie.

I still don't like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as much as I want to like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," but there's no denying that it has improved drastically over its first season, to the point where I am happy to keep giving it more chances to prove itself. The most problematic characters, Ward and Skye, have both been upgraded considerably. We finally got a compelling - or at least credibly threatening - villain in Bill Paxton's John Garrett. After weeks of awkward references and name-dropping, the show's storylines were properly integrated into the larger continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Oh, and Patton Oswalt and Samuel L. Jackson dropped by too.

When you look back over the whole season, everything that the creators spent all those early, tedious weeks setting up paid off wonderfully in the end. The Clairvoyant, the Centipede project, Deathlok, Quinn, Raina and the mystery of Coulson's resurrection all came into play. The trouble was that "Agents" had a lot of trouble getting the ensemble to mesh right, and its biggest weakness is still the main characters. There was the episode that was supposed to be devoted to Agent May's backstory that mostly consisted of other characters discussing her backstory. There was Agent Ward's traumatic past, conveyed through some of the most unclear, poorly shot flashback sequences I've ever seen. And while it's fine to have romantic pairings in the mix, they need to be well-delineated, or you end up with a mess. Did Fitz have a crush on Simmons or Skye or both in the early part of the season? A lot of the plotting here was downright clumsy.

As a result, there was way too much story to churn through and not enough of the fun, interpersonal team interactions that were necessary to support it. Though there were some stronger early episodes like "The Hub," which paired up Fitz and Ward, I don't think "Agents" really started improving until well into the midseason, with "T.R.A.C.K.S.," and only hit its stride when the big reveals started coming in the wake of the "Captain America" sequel. The show remains plot driven instead of character driven, which I don't think is going to be sustainable in the long run, but they've bought some time to work on their team dynamics. As much as I like Clark Gregg, Agent Coulson hasn't made the transition from secondary character to main character as well as I'd like. Chloe Bennett's Skye is at her best in snarky badass mode (as opposed to wide-eyed newbie mode), and finally getting more chances to prove it. Fitz and Simmons could be better, but have been the most consistently entertaining out of the whole bunch. Agent May and Agent Triplett have potential, but have been stuck in fairly limited, functional roles so far.

And then there's Agent Ward, who was the kind of bland, generic, utterly typical action hero type who we see in way too many of these shows. And thank all the Whedons under the sun that it turned out that he was a double-agent for Hydra all along. Sure, he's got an angsty past and a bleeding heart that means he's going to be redeemed and returned to the fold at some point down the line, but that doesn't take away from the fact that for the final run of episodes he was an evil, murderous nogoodnik, and far, far more entertaining for it. I think that the MVP of the season remains Bill Paxton, though, for pulling off a slimeball who was even more fun to hate. Pity he had to go splat.

The big budget, snazzy special effects, Marvel Universe tie-ins, and a slew of notable guest stars were all meant to help the show distinguish itself from the crowd. I think that all of these elements helped to some degree, but only to a certain extent. The effects work and expensive fight scenes couldn't impress if the writing wasn't there to give them proper context. Tie-ins were only effective once the show really started to commit to them. The guest spots ranged from middling to exceptional. The show got a real boost from the appearance of Jamie Alexander as Sif, for instance, but others like Adrian Pasdar were little more than fun Easter Eggs for Marvel fanboys.

"Agents" does successfully stand alone as a separate entity apart from the rest of the Marvel Universe, but I think it has only just found its footing and there's still a significant danger of backsliding into bad habits next season. And it's important to remember that we're getting a big influx of comics-based shows in the fall with "Gotham" and "Constantine," not to mention Marvel's "Agent Carter," which will be sharing the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." time slot during their hiatus. The novelty factor isn't going to work twice, and "Agents" is going to have to step up to the challenge.
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The Marvel folks have been dominating the discussion of superheroes lately, but I'll always be a DC Comics kind of gal, thanks largely to watching "Batman: The Animated Series" at just the right time when I was a kid. It remains my favorite incarnation of "Batman" and it's high time it got its own Top Ten List. This was one of the harder lists to pare down, and I've got a long list of honorable mentions as a result. As always, entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes.

"On Leather Wings" - The show's pilot episode is also one of its greatest, that sets the tone and style for the entire series. The mad scientist story is straight out of the earliest incarnations of Batman, but the modern sophistication of the writing and the more adult handling of the characters quickly establishes that "Batman: The Animated Series," (Henceforth "BTAS") had far bigger ambitions than most syndicated weekday cartoons.

"Heart of Ice" - Perhaps the best example of how "BTAS" reinvented, added to, and permanently enriched the "Batman" universe. Mr. Freeze was a gimmick villain until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got their hands on him, giving Victor Fries a tragic, crushing backstory that humanized him utterly. Add the score, the winter imagery, and that amazing Michael Ansara performance - Freeze's cold heart was never a gimmick again after this.

"Feat of Clay" - A two-parter with some of the strongest animation in the entire series. The tour-de-force finale sequence is pure, glorious nightmare fuel. However, it's the villain origin story, which could easily be mistake for an old fashioned '40s or '50s noir mixed with sci-fi horror, that really packs a punch. The shapechanging Clayface was one of several of the Batman villains who I found legitimately frightening in these early episodes.

"Almost Got 'Im" - A collection of our favorite villains gather to play cards, banter, and swap "Almost got 'im" stories about the Caped Crusader. It's a light, funny episode with a lot of great punchlines. The individual stories aren't all that memorable, but the framing device and the character interaction is priceless. I especially love how Two-Face's giant penny story provides an origin for the beloved Batcave fixture. And that he's still got the hots for Ivy.

"Heart of Steel" - I love Barbara Gordon in this, far more than I enjoy her subsequent appearances as Batgirl. Maybe it's the wonderful creepiness of the Rossum Robots (gotta love that reference), patterned off Miyazaki creations of all things, or the paranoid "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. Or maybe it's the heightened intensity of the action and suspense. Because the enemies were robots, they got away with much more violence here than usual.

"The Laughing Fish" - My favorite Joker episode, because it's so wonderfully absurd and twisted. The poison gas that leaves its victims with disturbing perma-grins, the copyright scheme, the wacky commercial with Harley singing the Joker Fish jingle, and Batman going up against a shark - it's just one outrageous moment after another. This was also the episode where Harley Quinn really became Harley Quinn, and I love the character to bits.

"If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" - I always had a thing for The Riddler, having cultivated a similar know-it-all personality as a kid. Riddler's origin story is not one of the better ones the show came up with, but I was always a sucker for the puzzles, and the writers came up with some fun ones for this episode. This was also the first time I remember seeing Robin in the series, who could usually be counted on to lighten things up a bit.

"Harley and Ivy" - Was there ever a pairing of female villains as perfect as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Bad girls were never so much fun to watch, and I couldn't help rooting for Ivy's twisted feminist schemes, even though I knew she was in the wrong. I mean, what woman hasn't secretly dreamed of having a bazooka on hand when harassed by a pack of hooligans? Their comeuppance, or course, is poetic justice at its finest - Gotham's Finest, that is.

"House and Garden" - I don't know why, but Poison Ivy episodes always seemed to involve the most horrific monsters and concepts. "House and Garden" has some of the most jaw-dropping. The story starts out innocuously enough, one of several second season episodes dealing with familiar villains' apparent attempts at reforming themselves. Ivy appears to have given up crime and become a suburban mom, but of course all is not what it seems.

"Harley's Holiday" - And finally, we end with a comic romp with my favorite "BTAS" character, Harley Quinn. Unlike Poison Ivy, Harley really does try to reform when she's released from Arkham. Unfortunately she's picked up some bad habits after all that time with Mr. J. I had a touch time choosing between this and the previous Harley episode, "Harlequinade," but this one gives Harley a chance to show what she's like working solo, and I appreciate the hopeful ending.

Honorable Mentions: "Christmas With the Joker," "Robin's Reckoning," "Two-Face," "Joker's Favor," "The Clock King," "I Am the Night, "Read My Lips," "Appointment in Crime Alley," "Eternal Youth," "Trial," "Mad as a Hatter," "Harlequinade," "Second Chance," "Catwalk," and "Over the Edge."
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I feel a little guilty writing this post, because casting news is really pretty speculative stuff, and there's really not as much controversy to talk about the way there was with the "Fantastic Four" cast a couple of months ago, which touched off a good debate about racebending and diversity. But good grief, the newly announced cast of the next "Star Wars" movie seems to be all anybody is talking about. The list of names was released yesterday, along with a picture of everyone gathered together for a script reading. The internet happily went bonkers over the news, so what the hell. I'm as much of a "Star Wars" nerd as anybody. I should get to enjoy this moment too.

And my reaction to the announcement is overwhelmingly positive. I love that the new cast is comprised of mostly unknowns, or at least actors who have been under the radar to the general public. I'm familiar enough with most of them - John Boyega from "Attack the Block," Adam Driver from "Girls," Domhnall Gleeson from "About Time" and many other things, Oscar Isaac from "Inside Llewyn Davis" and many, many other things, and Daisy Ridley as the new female lead who hasn't been in a single feature yet. There's also Andy Serkis and Max von Sydow, beloved cinema veterans bringing years of experience to the table. And returning cast members include Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and even grumpy ol' Harrison Ford has been coaxed back into the mix.

I'd caution eager "Star Wars" fans that the cast is far from everything. For the prequels George Lucas had a slew of talented actors, including Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and Ewan MacGregor, and we all remember how those movies turned out. I remain far more heartened at the involvement of Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote for the original trilogy. I remain non-committal about J.J. Abrams as the director. I liked his first "Star Trek" movie fine, but the second one seriously has me questioning his abilities. The fact that Hamill and the other leads from the first trilogy are coming back as major characters, and not just cameos, points to a potential repeat of some of the same problems that franchise reboot suffered under Abrams' watch. However, considering how Disney has been handling the Marvel films, and Abrams' notoriously jam-packed schedule, I doubt he'll be directing more than one or two installments.

But back to the cast. Right now, the biggest talking point that much of the internet has latched on to is that there's only one actress among the new cast members. Add Carrie Fisher, and that's a grand total of two. "Star Wars" always suffered a serious gender imbalance, with Natalie Portman's character the only major female figure in the sequels, but for whatever reason the skewed ratio pinged as more heinous this time around. There have been a lot of opinion pieces about female fans getting shafted. However, J.J. Abrams and others have pointed out that casting isn't done yet, and there is another major female role that still needs to be filled (rumors about Lupita Nyong'o were circulating recently), so any debate of the topic is operating without a complete picture. We can't connect the actors to specific roles either. Adam Driver is probably playing a villain, but we can only speculate about how large or small the other roles are.

Personally, I'm willing to wait and see. Even if we aren't getting more female characters, how they're used will trump how many there are. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that the cast reflects some very positive strides in other areas. On the subject of racial diversity, I'm thrilled at the inclusion of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Boyega in particular is one of those young actors who has been on the verge of stardom for a while, and I'm so happy he's getting his shot. Even if he turns out to only be playing a supporting character, another Lando or Mace Windu, this is going to raise his profile into the stratosphere. We're going to have to see how Daisy Ridley fares, but this is a very strong group of talent, and I don't see any of the youngsters becoming the next Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, or Ahmed Best.

It's finally sunk in that the new "Star Wars" movies are really happening, and I find myself excited about the franchise for the first time in a very long time. I was so disappointed by the prequels, I forgot how much fun "Star Wars" hype can be. While I'm fully aware that this could all turn out badly, today I'm just going to put the cynicism aside and enjoy the possibilities. I can't wait for 2015 and "Episode VII."
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It's been a long time since I ventured into the anime sphere. After going cold turkey since 2008, I thought it was time I took a look at some of the shows that have been getting attention recently. One of the most buzzed about, which will premiere on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim over the weekend, is last year's action series "Attack on Titan." It's been available on Netflix and Hulu and all the usual anime outlets for a while now. I've worked through ten episodes so far, enough to get a fairly good bead on the show. I intend to finish it, but frankly, my impressions are mixed.

"Attack on Titan" is not about the largest moon of Saturn, and not a science-fiction series at all. Instead, it's a post-apocalyptic steampunk show, that takes place in a future with a very medieval European aesthetic. The Titans are giant naked humanoids that have exterminated much of humanity. Their origins are a mystery, but their sole purpose seems to be to hunt down and eat human beings. The survivors now live in a vast walled settlement under a feudal system of governance with very limited technology. One day, after a hundred years of relative peace, the Titans attack the outer wall and destroy a major city, Shiganshina. Three children among the survivors vow to grow up and join the fight against the Titans.

I found the first two episodes depicting the return of the Titans underwhelming. The production values were gorgeous, the design work was fine, and I liked the basic premise of humanity being under the heel of these creepy, brutal fairy-tale giants. But at heart this is a very typical fantasy anime, with all the usual tropes you'd expect - and some particularly grating ones. The chief one was the main character, a hotheaded brat named Eren Yeager whose personality is driven almost entirely by self-righteousness, and is prone to bouts of angry ranting. I've noticed this type of protagonist has become pretty popular lately. Lelouche from "Code Geass" and Light Yagami from "Death Note" are other examples of similarly frustrated young egomaniacs. I find them terribly off-putting.

However, they're common in shows like this that want to establish that they take place in particularly brutal universes. The Titan attacks involve lots of explicit violence and gore. The Titans have no private parts, but they still make for wonderfully disturbing visuals, especially when they're eating hapless humans by the handfuls. Of course, the humans aren't particularly nice either, and the series shows that they're at their worst in a crisis. While the nihilism is refreshing to a point, I wish it were accompanied by so much oveheated melodrama. When people get upset in certain action anime, they have a tendency to start screaming all their dialogue, and "Attack on Titan" is especially prone to this. The first two episodes eventually devolve into so much screaming and crying and carrying on, I hit the mute button a few times to spare my ears.

Fortunately subsequent episodes tone down the most egregious problems. Eren is aged up quickly to become a cadet in training, and his brattiness is turned way, way down. The show transitions to a character-driven military story, following Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin as they become cadets and then join up with the army. Their primary means of combat is the Gear system, which combines steam-powered grappling hooks, parkour, and big honking swords to let the soldiers become these crazy samurai Spider-men. The action scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and eventually the series builds them up to some great crescendos. There are still intermittent screaming matches, but far fewer of them.

But as entertaining as "Attack on Titan" is, it's not really doing anything new or better than similar series have done before. Its worldbuilding is good so far, but it's starting to lean pretty heavily on the old tournament fighting show formula. The characters, the scenarios, the discovery of game-changing new powers - it's all awfully familiar. There's the female second-in-command with the glasses and the uptight demeanor. There's the sweet ditz with the food fixation. There's the absent father with too many secrets. There's the convenient amnesia. The nice production values, climbing death count, and high intensity count for a lot, but whenever things slow down, the weaknesses of the show's construction are plain to see.

I'm not surprised that anime fans who enjoy shows like this are eating up "Attack on Titan." It's a shiny new variation on a lot of old favorites. However, it doesn't strike me as a classic or a game-changer, not the way that "Evangelion" or the first "Full Metal Alchemist" series were - unless the bar for quality has seriously come down since I took my long break from anime.
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Catching up on some TV here, I recently polished off the most recent season of "Archer," the one where the secret spy agency of ISIS is shuttered and its staff left in limbo with a terrifying amount of cocaine on their hands. So, logically, they decide to form a drug cartel. And the creators renamed the show "Archer Vice," created some nifty new key art, and modified the opening sequence just a bit. According to interviews with "Archer" creator Adam Reed, the only reason the reason they did this is because they were bored. Moderate spoilers for the season ahead, but none of the big reveals from the last few episodes.

So what happens when you take Archer and Lana and the rest of the gang out of their usual roles as ISIS agents and enablers, and introduce them to a life of crime? Well, you get a show that's much more plotty and structured, but that retains its usual level of violent, high octane hijinks and casual obscenity. "Archer Vice" is a more serialized show, with several big storylines driving each episode, and nearly every character dealing with ongoing subplots throughout the season. Most of the year sees them living out of one of the Tunt mansions, coming up with various schemes to sell the cocaine and get rich, ultimately wrapping up with a four-part finale in San Marcos that ties back into the espionage world. Otherwise, they're being the same collection of loons that they always were - just broke, short on resources, and under a lot of new pressures. It's an awful lot of fun.

Without the constraints of the office hierarchy, characters get shifted into new roles and we get to see different sides of them that we haven't before. And surprisingly, it becomes clear as the time goes on that the gang actually does have some attachment to each other beyond the fact that Malory is paying them, or at least promising to pay them eventually. This is not to suggest that the show is getting all mushy on us, but more than any other season we find the ISIS crew banding together in tough times, and that their shared personal history does have an impact on their interactions. Archer has also become less of an irresponsible ass - though he's as thick-headed about some things as ever. It takes a while to notice, though, because "Archer Vice" sees the entire premise of the show rebooted, Carol/Cheryl starts a country music career and renames herself Cherlene, Pam becomes a coke addict, Lana's pregnant, Malory's separated from Ron, and Cyril eventually goes mad with power in circumstances that are far too funny to spoil. Heck, even Krieger gets some pretty compelling new issues to deal with.

I found I didn't miss the spy missions at all, as Archer's cocaine dealing adventures are mostly in the same vein as his work for ISIS, and the new dynamics allow the supporting characters much more of an opportunity to participate in the action. Also, keeping them in close quarters always leads to a lot of good friction. Initially I had my doubts about where the show was going, especially the Cherlene business, which seemed so out of left field that I didn't know how they could integrate it with everything else going on. But integrate it they did, leading to some of the season's funniest scenes with special guest stars Kenny Loggins and Fred Armisen. Now I hope Cherlene sticks around next season in some capacity, because her new schtick is at least as much fun as her old schtick, and there's a lot of mileage left in the concept. In general, it was nice to get a break from the regular "Archer" formula, and I'm a little sorry that the show is going to un-reboot itself for season six and send everybody back to the office.

Of course, there are things that happened this year that can't be un-rebooted, involving Lana and Archer and their relationship. Adam Reed and crew have really set up some promising possibilities for next year. Will Sterling Archer's gradual maturation continue, or will he backslide into his old ways once ISIS is up and running again? What kind of mother will Lana be, and what part is the father going to play in her life? I never thought of "Archer" as having much depth to it, but the hints of growth and change that have popped up in the last few seasons coalesced nicely this year, and I expect we may be moving into ever-so-slightly more serious territory next year.

Well, as serious as you can get on an animated action sitcom where they just devoted a whole season to running a drug cartel, staging coups against foreign governments, and a former HR lady finding ever-more-creative ways to ingest cocaine. Seriously, those cocaine cupcakes looked yummy.
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I was going to wait until the US release dates, but screw it. Distributors have been dragging their heels and these features have already hit home media in several other countries, so you're getting reviews of some of my most highly anticipated films from last year now.

I expect that Bong Joon-ho's science-fiction action film "Snowpiercer," is going to be pretty divisive. For one thing, it's one of those social allegory films like "In Time" or "Equilibrium" that has a really half-baked premise that is completely implausible when you think about it. And then there's the dark tone, the two-dimensional characters, and the fairly heavy-handed messages about class and persecution. There are plenty of action sequences to keep the momentum going, but they're not the point of the movie, and the director refuses to follow the usual formulas for the action spectaculars his audience may be expecting.

"Snowpiercer" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a new ice age has wiped out most of life on earth. What remains of humanity live on a train, the Snowpiercer, which perpetually circles the globe. The elites live at the front of the train and the poorest passengers are kept in the tail compartment, downtrodden and oppressed by the agents of the train's mysterious creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). After some of the tail compartment children are taken away by the cruel Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a rebellion is organized by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans). He and a group of the passengers intend to fight their way to the front of the train, seize the engine, and overturn the system. The first step is breaking an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), out of prison.

The first thing you'll notice about the film is that in spite of the Korean director and crew, nearly the entire cast is made up of recognizable Western actors, In addition to Evans, Swinton, and Harris, there's also John Hurt as Curtis's mentor figure Gilliam, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer as other members of the rebellion, and Alison Pill as a teacher they encounter further up in the train. Most of the dialogue is in English, though Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) converse almost entirely in Korean. "Snowpiercer" was clearly intended for Western audiences, and borrows lots of tropes from Hollywood action films. You have the small band of scrappy freedom-fighters rising up against a corrupt system, the loathsome totalitarian thugs, the madman visionary, and snazzy gun battles galore.

That's why the departures from the Hollywood template have more impact here. Ideas and story are given particular emphasis, while the action is a secondary concern. Violence has consequences, usually very bad, and the world of "Snowpiercer" is much harsher and more cynical than the bulk of similar American dystopia films. Bong Joon-ho doesn't flesh out its characters as well as he should, with a few exceptions, but he does a great job with the worldbuilding. If you're willing to suspend some disbelief, exploring the little microcosm of human society aboard the Snowpiercer is a lot of fun. Each lovingly designed train compartment reveals new details of the hierarchy, and helps piece together its history. The visuals are a real treat, incorporating CGI as well as any summer blcokbuster I've seen in recent years.

I was skeptical about Chris Evans in the lead role, playing the gloomy, bearded freedom fighter Curtis who pings about ten years older than Captain America, pre-defrost. However, he grew on me, and delivers a utterly ridiculous monologue in the last act with such sincerity, that he ultimately won me over. He's playing a fairly cliche character in a film full of over-the-top caricatures and larger than life personalities, but grounds him enough to pass muster. Other performances are hit or miss, but I loved the bureaucratic awfulness of Tilda Swinton's Minister Mason, and Ed Harris's benevolent madman. The Korean characters had potential, but they weren't given much to do, and often felt like an afterthought.

For me, the worldbuilding and the simple narrative were enough to keep me entertained and engaged, but I can easily see others being infuriated by the illogical nature of how of the "Snowpiercer" universe is constructed, the lack of depth to the characters, and some of the underlying philosophical ideas. This is sure to be a nitpicker's nightmare, starting with the idea of the train being powered by a perpetual-motion engine that can somehow sustain an entire self-enclosed ecosystem. I appreciate the film being so willing to grapple with big themes and being so ambitious in its scope, but the execution is far from perfect, and I sympathize with those who expected more from the film.

Of the three major South Korean directors who made films for Western audiences last year, Bong Joon-Ho has found the most success, and "Snowpiercer" suggests that he may have more mainstream prospects if he wishes to pursue them.
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I got overhyped for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which some fans are calling the best Marvel universe movie yet, and on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I'd place "Winter Soldier" about on par with the first "Captain America," which I liked an awful lot, maybe a little higher, but still firmly behind "The Avengers" and the first "Iron Man" movie. I prefer my Marvel movies lighter and quippier, and "Winter Soldier" is all business. But for some the more down-to-earth political thriller trappings will be a big plus, and I understand why the movie has been embraced so wholeheartedly.

We find Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) working for the intelligence operation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) where Cap is displeased to discover that the two of them have been given different sets of orders, Fury reveals that he and Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), are working on the secret Project Insight, where a trio of new helicarriers will give them the capability to target and eliminate anyone on earth. Sinister forces are at work, however, which soon pit Cap against a "ghost" assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorism unit gone rogue. Fortunately Cap still has Black Widow on his side, and a new ally in former pararescue soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), also known as the Falcon.

While "The Winter Soldier" clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, where cryogenics can preserve a supersoldier for seventy years and nifty gadgets let ordinary people accomplish all sorts of outlandish, impossible feats, the story takes its cues from recent Bourne and Bond spy thrillers more than any of the familiar superhero templates. Sure, you get your giant scale battles full of carnage and destruction, but the bulk of the story is all about the cloak and dagger operations of a group of baddies who have the most frightening tools of the surveillance state at their disposal. There's quite a bit of not-so-subtle commentary on the current state of the military industrial complex, the intelligence community, drone warfare, and privacy concerns I didn't ever expect to see in a Marvel blockbuster.

Of course, this only goes so far. This is still a comic book movie and so all of these problems can be solved by simply identifying the bad guys and the bad organization that they work for, and taking them down with all manner of fancy stunt work and CGI explosions. And boy is the action a lot of fun in "Winter Soldier." We're treated to car chases, aerial chases, gun battles, cat-and-mouse games, a couple of different hand-to-hand showdowns, and a fight sequence in a crowded elevator that is just delightful. Better yet, "The Winter Soldier" has a wonderful momentum and energy throughout that has been missing from far too many similar movies. It's could stand a little trimming here and there, but otherwise it's an excellent flick as far as action is concerned.

Where I think the movie has been oversold is the maturity of its storyline. Yes, it's great to see Cap and friends dealing with some real-world issues and tackling a situation with some very big stakes in play. However, the twists and turns remain very PG-13, easily digestible, and pretty typical action movie fodder. While there are permanent consequences that seriously affect some of the characters and the Marvel universe as a whole, we're still taking about fantasy baddies and soap opera twists. These are executed about as well as they possibly could be, but despite the presence of Robert Redford in a prominent role, this could never be mistaken for a serious 70s political thriller, and it lacks the operatic grandeur of Nolan's Bat films.

"The Winter Soldier" is a solid, entertaining film, but I think the most recent couple of Marvel sequels have been so lackluster that the bar has been lowered to the point where this one seems better than it actually is. The Russo brothers were handed the directing reins, and acquit themselves nicely, though they get a little carried away with the shakeycam, and they're not in the same ballpark as Paul Greengrass. Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, but he's not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr., and the movie leans heavily on its sterling supporting players - several of them in dire need of their own spinoff films. Nick Fury and Black Widow in particular get plenty to do, and end up outshining our hero.

There's no doubt that this is one of the best Marvel universe films, but that doesn't mean as much as it would have a year or two ago. It does a good job of being its own self-contained film and still pushing larger events in the Marvel movie franchise forward, but I can't help thinking that it could have been better if it didn't have to worry about setting up more sequels.
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Lots of spoilers for the third season of "Game of Thrones" ahead. That's the third season that aired roughly a year ago, kids, not the upcoming fourth one that you've been seeing all the marketing for. Why am I writing a post about something that happened in year three now, after I already wrote up my thoughts on that season back at the end of last summer? Well, because I think that enough time has passed in regards to spoilers and such that I can finally get my rant on about one of the biggest events in the show so far: the infamous Red Wedding.

I managed to avoid most of the spoilers about the third season. I didn't know who got married to who, who got various body parts cut off, who nearly got killed by who, who became unlikely friends with who, who conquered what, and who finally stuck it to a White Walker. The Red Wedding massacre, however, was something I had been hearing about in offhand comments long before this season began. It seemed like everyone who was a fan of the books was anticipating it, and they weren't shy about broadcasting that anticipation. I've been pretty good about avoiding places where spoilers tend to come up, but talk of the Red Wedding seemed to be the exception to every rule about spoilers. Even the most conscientious and considerate "Thrones" fan couldn't seem to resist referring to it as a major event coming up in the show, and thus is was practically impossible to avoid being hyped up for it. And that's really what killed it for me.

After "Rains of Castamere," the episode where the Red Wedding actually happened, aired on HBO, matters got exponentially worse because suddenly the information went viral in the mainstream media. Even though the details of what actually went down were still fairly scarce, the response to the episode itself became a talking point. I was reminded of this when earlier in the week, Jon Stewart brought up the Red Wedding in his "Daily Show" interview of Peter Dinklage and the popular Youtube videos of upset viewers reacting to the big moment. There were thinkpieces circulating everywhere, and from the titles alone it became obvious that the Red Wedding was a massacre where a lot of major characters died in an especially horrific fashion. I understand the fans' need to share in the experience, and the media commentators' need to generate meta, but this was too much. You had to avoid the internet entirely to avoid being spoiled, something I wasn't willing to do.

When I finally watched "Rains of Castamere" several months later, it didn't live up to expectations. How could it? So much of the effectiveness of the Red Wedding was the suddenness of it, that with hardly any warning the writer would kill off a major protagonist who had up to that point been the center of a major thread of the story. The same thing happened in the first season with the execution of Ned Stark, which was also spoiled for me, but that one stung less because it had attracted much less attention and commentary, so the impact still hit me the way it was supposed to. The Red Wedding was billed as being an even bigger game changer, but honestly I didn't think much of it. The characters who got killed off were among the least interesting, and it was honestly a bit of a relief to learn that they wouldn't be taking up any more screen time. One of the female victims was so bland, I was happy her actress, who I like, would now be able to go take on better work.

I know almost nothing about the upcoming fourth season of "Game of Thrones," except the identities of a couple of the characters are going to survive to the fifth season because they're still being referred to in the present tense by a friend of mine who reads the books. It's actually fairly heartening to hear some claim that it's all downhill after The Red Wedding, and there's nothing in the series that lives up to that moment. That means that I'm not going to have to weather the fallout of another of these big, shocking surprises for the foreseeable future. Instead, I can enjoy season four the way I enjoyed most of season three - completely obliviously.

Season three has actually been my favorite year of "Game of Thrones" so far, but the Red Wedding really didn't play much of a part in that. Would I have appreciated it more if I didn't know it was coming? Sure, but I'd still have been more invested in what was going on with practically all the other characters. I'm sure I'd have been impressed by the twist, but there were plenty of other developments in the season that were just as important narratively. I'm really looking forward to the fourth season coming up, and I'm really looking forward to watching it without the threat of so many spoilers hanging over my head this time.

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Minor spoilers ahead.

Brett Ratner helming a second "Inception" movie was always an iffy prospect, but somehow he got nearly all the major cast members from the first movie back for another round (with the notable exception of Leonrado DiCaprio), and and seemed to be working with an intriguing new concept: reversing an inception, or removing an artificially implanted idea from someone's mind. Sadly, the execution frequently feels like a retread of the first film, though not a bad one.

Tom Hardy takes over the lead for "Inception: Mindscape" as Robert Eames, the chameleon "forger" who has gotten himself deep in debt with the wrong crowd, and is recruited by a government operative, Louise Revere (Joan Allen) to go into the mind of Senator Edmund Hawkes (Stacy Keach) who they suspect has been incepted by agents of a foreign conglomerate. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and Saito (Ken Watanabe) are back, along with new faces Heloise (Felicity Jones) and Crawford (Anthony Mackie), Eames' new love interest and the new stick-in-the-mud respectively. We also have obvious villains this time out in the form of evil European tycoon Magnus Vang (Aksel Hennie) and his sister, the femme fatale Magdalena (Lea Seydoux).

The good news is that Ratner can still handle an action scene, and though his gunfights and car chases ping as fairly generic, they do a good job of keeping the momentum going. Less successful is the dream imagery. Apparently Ratner took the complaints about the previous dream environments being too utopian and rationally ordered to heart, because he injects several absurd elements into the mix - circus animals in the train sequence and steampunk vehicles in the cathedral showdown, for instance. A better director could have handled these more effectively, but in Ratner's hands they just tend to be distracting. More fundamentally, despite all the fancy new CGI dreamscapes, new characters, and a twisty, complicated plot, the structure of the new "Inception" movie, down to many of the action beats, is almost identical to the first one.

And that's not the only thing that feels too familiar. Hans Zimmer's famously unsubtle score is back, and way more obtrusive here than it should be. We get more gravity-defying stunts, more James Bond inspired fights, but they're only minor variations on things that we've already seen. For the most part the dream worlds are missing that meticulous construction and sense of cyberpunk dystopia that Christopher Nolan brought to his work. Brett Ratner manages to give us a decent approximation, but it's just not the same. I'd have rather seen a more radical departure from the style, maybe from a director with a more distinct visual sense, like Tarsem Singh or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Probably the best bit of imagery that Ratner pulls off is the M.C. Escher cathedral, where the climax takes place, though we don't get much of a chance to really look at it for more than a few seconds, which is a shame.

The actors pick up a lot of the slack. Tom Hardy is perfectly comfortable in the leading man role, and fortunately much more intelligible than he was in both "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Mad Max: Fury Road." However, he has far more chemistry with Seydoux than he does with Felicity Jones, and the romantic subplot really feels tacked on. The tone of the film is much lighter, with a lot more banter being tossed around by the supporting characters, and Aksel Hennie hamming it up nicely as the villain of the piece. For the most part the humor avoids being jokey and I think it works, though there are a few scenes that feel too much like material cut from one of Ratner's "Rush Hour" films. And I suspect he may have seen "Juno" one too many times considering the amount of snark he has Ellen Page deliver.

What I found really disappointing, though, was that "Mindscape" doesn't do much to expand the "Inception" universe except in the most perfunctory ways. We barely learn any more about the most intriguing characters from the first film, none of the dream technology is expanded upon, and there's little insight into the corporate hegemony that seems to run the world despite the entire plot depending on navigating its intricacies. We do learn a lot more about Eames, but it only serves to genericize him into a typical action hero. I guess that was to be expected, since the point of this sequel seems to have been to genericize "Inception" to the point where it would be easier for Warner Brother to pump out more sequels.

"Inception: Mindscape" is decent enough for a big budget action movie, but viewers hoping for something to match the original movie are bound to be disappointed. I did have fun with it though, and the movie leaves enough unanswered questions that I'm open to seeing an "Inception 3," though I do hope that Ratner cedes the director's chair to someone new.

Someone with less of a simian fixation. Seriously, what was with all the monkeys?
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Seven years ago, Zack Snyder's "300" came out in theaters, did summer blockbuster numbers at the box office, and reaped some big rewards to all involved. Gerald Butler was promoted to Hollywood leading man status. Zack Snyder was hailed as a visionary and handed gigantic budgets and famous franchises for follow-up projects. Adult-oriented comic-book properties were mined for more material. And, of course, the sword-and-sandals epic genre saw a spike in numbers. And now with the release of the "300: Rise of an Empire" the long-delayed sequel (prequel? midquel?) starring somebody else and directed by somebody else, we can look back at all that the first "300" has wrought and realize that Hollywood still has no idea why it was a hit.

Clearly, it wasn't Gerard Butler. He's been handed multiple chances to distinguish himself in multiple action films ("Machine Gun Preacher," "Olympus Has Fallen"), thrillers ("Law Abiding Citizen"), and romantic comedies ("The Ugly Truth," "The Bounty Hunter"), but his most successful role since playing King Leonidas has been as the viking dad in the "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise. Butler belongs to the class of the "stand-in" leading men like Sam Worthington who have made their name in big effects pictures, but have failed to parlay the success into better parts that really showcase their talents. Butler at least has more name recognition thanks to playing a more distinctive, iconic character, but it's all too easy to get him confused with other, similar actors.

Everybody knows who Zack Snyder is, but that may not be a good thing. After the success of "300" and his earlier "Dawn of the Dead" remake, Snyder was essentially given carte blanche to direct whatever projects he wanted. This lead to the deeply flawed film version of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" graphic novel and then the greatly reviled "Sucker Punch." Both movies barely made their budgets back and landed Snyder on shaky ground. Last summer's "Man of Steel" didn't really help matters, making his flaws as a director painfully clear. Snyder has his fans and his apologists, especially among the fanboy set, but he's proven himself to be a very niche director with mainstream-unfriendly tastes, and his involvement threatens to put the entire DC film universe in a very bad position.

What about the swords-and-sandals subject matter? Did that account for the success of "300"? Well, between the original "300" and its sequel we've been subjected to "Clash Of The Titans," "Wrath Of The Titans," "The Legend Of Hercules," "Immortals," "Pompeii," and a new "Conan," none of which have been particularly well received. "Clash" made enough money to warrant a sequel, but the rest did not. Television fared better with the "Spartacus" series, but similar projects have been scarce. There's been no great demand for action films set in ancient times, and the upcoming 2014 slate reflects that. There's still Brett Ratner's "Hercules" with The Rock coming up, but attentions have shifted away from Rome and Greece to Biblical stories like "Noah" and "Exodus."

Did the adult comic-book origins of "300" have any effect? The film was based on a violent Frank Miller graphic novel after all. With the "Sin City" sequel delayed to later this year we haven't had another film based on Miller's source material, but there have been plenty of similar projects including "The Losers," the two "Kick-Ass" films, the "RED" movies, "2 Guns," and of course "Watchmen." Well, considering how these films performed in comparison to the PG-13 superhero movies aimed at younger audiences, it doesn't look like that was a winning tactic either. The most successful adult comic adaptation has been AMC's "The Walking Dead," which has fairly adult content, but has much less leeway than a feature film to really utilize it.

So what made "300" a hit? The Dissolve pegged it - neat graphics and special effects work, which made "300" look different from all the sword-sand-sandals movies that preceded it. There's not really much special about the movie otherwise. The performances are solid, but unspectacular. The story is sexed up, but follows the template of a sword-and-sandals adventure pretty closely. Zack Snyder's style is impressive, but the novelty of it wore off after subsequent films where it didn't prove a good fit for more nuanced material. The grim and gritty design is actually starting to look a little dated after so many other action films of recent years adopted the same approach.

Personally, I though "300" was a decent movie, but its outsized impact on the blockbuster landscape always puzzled me. I guess its success was such a surprise and it presented so many elements that looked easily reproducible that Hollywood was duped into thinking that they just had to reuse its basic elements in the right ways to achieve the same results. Of course Hollywood has been making this same mistake for as long as there has been a Hollywood. The only surefire way to capitalize on a movie's success, of course is, to franchise it. And sure enough "300: Rise of an Empire" is busy beating up the competition at the box office as we speak.
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The first "Hunger Games" movie was a little rough around the edges and a little oddly formed. At times it didn't feel quite committed to its shocking premise, and its young heroine was a little too opaque. Still, it did distinguish itself from all the other young adult genre franchises thanks to a good lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and some genuinely resonant subject matter. The sequel, I'm happy to report, manages to improve on it substantially.

The last time we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutsherson) had been crowned the co-victors of the Hunger Games, the yearly gladiatorial deathmatches used by the leaders of their dystopia to oppress the downtrodden populace. Katniss learns the corrupt Capitol is far from done with her, especially since her victory has been seen as a gesture of defiance, spurring signs of an uprising. She and Peeta are sent on a victory tour, and ordered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to continue the ruse that they're young lovers, though Katniss is actually smitten with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, Snow and a new Gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare for the next Hunger Games, which they plan to use to eliminate Katniss permanently.

Last time, it was everything going on outside the actual Hunger Games, the reality show spectacle, the distorted celebrity culture, and the not-so-subtle mass media critique, that delivered the most entertainment, while the Games themselves were fairly mediocre. This time the film is more competent as an action movie, but the good stuff is still mostly the maneuverings that are going on outside and around the Games. We get much more focus on the political climate and the social unrest this time, as Katniss struggles with a life in the spotlight she can't escape. Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver a strong performance, as Katniss's survival-oriented worldview begins to shift towards rebelliousness. She really sells the paranoia and the moments of blind panic early on, which make Katniss's later bravery all the more affecting. Her would-be screen beaus can't keep up with her, though Hutcherson improves quite a bit.

The budget was noticeably increased for this film, thanks to the series' newly minted blockbuster status. The talent level of the incoming actors reflects this too. In addition to Hoffman, new characters include other former victors Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who may be new potential allies or enemies for Katniss. Donald Sutherland gets much more screen time and much more to do, cementing him as the real Big Bad of "The Hunger Games." He's a lot of fun bringing on the malevolence here, as are returning cast members Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson in supporting parts. More importantly we've got an action movie director onboard for this round, Francis Lawrence, best known for "I am Legend." No more shakey-cam, and though the action remains firmly in PG-13 territory, not so much squeamishness about the violence either.

All in all this is a much more comfortable, self-assured outing. In many ways the plot retreads significant portions of the first movie, but now the commentary is more pointed, the action more impactful, and the narrative much more focused. Stakes are raised across the board. The sinister tyrant who watched the first Games from afar is now right across the table from Katniss, and threatening her directly to her face. Where media manipulation was a clever strategy in the first movie, now it's a matter of life and death with both sides constantly debating ways to use Katniss's image to their own advantage. Concepts are better fleshed out, characters have more depth and definition, and it's much easier to get swept up into this universe.

I do miss some of the roughness of the first "Hunger Games," with its bluegrass infused score and gloomier, more atmospheric depictions of Katniss's impoverished home town. "Catching Fire" is much more polished, and its wilder conceits are easier to swallow because of better execution, but as a result it comes across as a little more generic. However, "Catching Fire" is much more accessible and delivers on all fronts a lot more consistently. It also does a great deal of heavy lifting to widen the scope of "The Hunger Games" to accommodate a four-film franchise. I'm much more interested in the seeing the rest of the films now than I was after the first one.

In fact, when you put it up against all the other big budget action franchises out there right now, "The Hunger Games" is one of the best that Hollywood has to offer. It does have some real substance to it, features a compelling narrative with strong ideas, and is terribly entertaining too. Let's hope they keep it up.
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Minor spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far

After thirteen episodes, I feel like I'm still waiting for "Almost Human" to drop the other shoe. Despite setting up a lot of mythology and all these different little mysteries that point to longer arcs and more substantive stories, there hasn't been a whole lot of progression for any of the show's major ongoing conflicts since the pilot. Remember the traumatic shoot-out with the Syndicate and John Kennex's missing ex-girlfriend? They're referenced a few times, to assure us that the storyline is still alive and well, but the developments are only incremental. What about the mysterious memories that Rudy found in Dorian? No answers, but plenty of fretting over them. Any more information on Dorian's past or the circumstances of his decommissioning? Not really.

Instead, "Almost Human" quickly slipped into being yet another crime-of-the-week police procedural, except set in a future version of Pittsburgh. The special effects are still a notch above the norm, and it's fun to see the show play with concepts like a genetically-engineered class of humans called Chromes, souped-up security systems run amok, and upgraded plastic surgery. Sadly, the writing isn't anything special, and there's nothing that matches up to the promising first two episodes. Instead, it pings as awfully similar to the all the middling science-fiction shows that I was watching on FOX back in the '90s like "Sliders" and all the "The X-Files" clones. I was especially puzzled at how the show so rarely delves into the question posed by the show's title - what are the larger consequences of creating androids like Dorian, who are almost human, but not quite? The show touches on Dorian's day-to-day struggles with living as a synthetic being in a human world, but never very deeply. I don't think Kennex's status as a cyborg officer has been brought up since the third or fourth episode.

I still like the pairing of Michael Ealy and Keith Urban very much, and it's enough to keep most of the filler stories on track, but the show clearly isn't using these two to their full potential. The rest of the cast is in even worse shape. Mackenzie Crook's Rudy has gotten a lot of screen time and makes for decent comic relief, but Lili Taylor is stuck spouting tired exposition as their supervisor, Michael Irby's Detective Paul remains infuriatingly two-dimensional, and though Minka Kelly got one good episode as Detective Stahl, I still can't take her seriously as a police officer, especially as the show insists on dressing and coiffing her like a network morning show hostess and she's frequently more plasticine than the show's android characters. Compare how another network genre show, "Person of Interest" has steadily developed its cast of minor characters, and the problem becomes obvious.

What I liked so much about the early episodes of "Almost Human" was the worldbuilding, that nice mix of retro-futuristic elements with more contemporary technological advancements. However, this has gotten increasingly generic over time. Hackers apparently still take their fashion cues from the outdated 90s alternative scene last seen in "Hackers" the movie. The plots to "Repo Men" and "Untraceable" have already been rehashed, along with the usual runamok androids, misappropriated high-tech weaponry, and medical advances gone wrong that inevitably show up on every similar science-fiction show. The problem is that "Almost Human" hasn't provided much to distinguish itself. It still feels like the show is referencing other science-fiction media instead of making a cohesive whole out of all the different bits of technology it's introduced.

Detective Kennex and Dorian could be really compelling characters if they were handled right, and the show is in a position where it could tackle much headier and more interesting material, but the desire to do so clearly isn't there. I keep finding myself comparing "Almost Human" to the first season of the "Ghost in the Shell" series, which was also a procedural about law enforcement operating in a technologically advanced near-future filled with cyborgs and androids. The difference is that despite being animated, "Ghost in the Shell" wasn't afraid of complex ideas and difficult characters. It had no interest in trotting out the old tropes and pandering to their audience, even if it meant alienating the more mainstream viewers. "Almost Human" is often painfully safe and formulaic.

Oh well. Maybe I expected too much. "Almost Human" is still a perfectly watchable genre show and continues to display a lot of potential to be better than it is. However, I'm not going to be too disappointed if this turns out to be its only season. It produced a few good episodes and created some interesting characters. It's just too bad that it never took advantage of everything it had going for it, and produced anything really great.
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Going into "The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug" with reduced expectations helped a lot. The movie has all the same problems as the first installment - way too little of Bilbo, way too many cameos, and all the issues that resulted from trying to stretch roughly a hundred pages of story into three hours of blockbuster filmmaking. However, this time at least the introductions and much of the exposition had already been taken care of, and our heroes are firmly in mid-adventure, so there weren't any problems keeping the story's momentum going. Also, the high points of “Smaug” were a good deal higher than “Unexpected Journey.”

When last we saw Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and Gandalf (Ian McKellan), they were being pursued by orcs and still a long way from the Lonely Mountain, their ultimate destination. The journey takes them to Mirkwood, where they meet the hostile Wood Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and then to Lake-town, inhabited by humans, where they enlist the help of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Bilbo continues to the power of the ring that he won from Gollum, and readies himself to go up against Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), unaware of the ring’s connection to the dark power that Gandalf continues to investigate.

The biggest departure from the book, and for some viewers the biggest headache will be the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who along with a new female warrior elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) get quite a lot of screentime. There’s really no justification for them to be part of the story, and Tauriel seems like a much too convenient excuse to shoehorn a romance into the works, but it doesn’t come off that badly. The elves are largely limited to action sequences, and Tauriel does have some chemistry with the young dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) who catches her eye. She’s fun to watch - essentially another Arwen, but with more fancy weaponry.

Characters that do come straight from Tolkien don’t necessarily work any better. There’s a curious digression to have a few scenes with Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a “skin-changer,” which doesn’t amount to anything except that it means a favorite character from the original novel wasn’t left out. Bard gets an expanded part, which paints him as an outsider in Lake-town, but it feels like the writers are trying too hard to get the audience to view him as a hero figure without making him properly heoric, similar to their missteps with Thorin. Fortunately we see less of other problematic characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the various orc warlords this time, and they’re deployed in a more tolerable fashion. Gandalf’s expanded subplot even builds to a nice climax after all the meandering from the first movie.

Performances are pretty strong all around. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo gets more to do, Richard Armitage is growing on me, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is as much of a delight as ever, and I was surprised at how much I liked Evangeline Lily as Tauriel after bracing myself for the worst. I found that most of the new faces weren’t nearly as effective, though. There’s something a little off about Thranduil and Bard - or maybe it’s just that the film versions of the characters have taken liberties with them that I haven’t quite gotten my head around yet. As for the return of Orlando Bloom, he honestly doesn’t get that much to do and I spent most of his screentime marveling at how different he looked from his last appearance in “Lord of the Rings” despite not seeming to have aged a day.

The movie’s main event, and what I’ve been waiting years to see, is the full realization of the dragon Smaug, a wonderful CGI creature whose interactions with Bilbo Baggins were worth waiting for. Jackson insists on adding action scenes here where none existed, but they’re well executed spectacle of the best kind. Most of the action has been improved in this movie, more well grounded, and more focused on character. Two other standout sequences are Bilbo’s fight with a group of spiders and an escape involving the heroes riding barrels down a raging river. I should also point out that most of the little quibbles that I had with visuals in “There and Back Again” because of the use of the 48 fps projection have mostly been fixed in “Desolation of Smaug.” The picture looks absolutely gorgeous.

In short, I was able to turn my brain off long enough to enjoy the new “Hobbit” movie as an action blockbuster and stop comparing it to “Lord of the Rings.” I still think that this new trilogy has been severely compromised by stretching it out to three movies and shifting the focus away from Bilbo, but at least they’re making improvements and have translated many of the best bits of Tolkein to the screen in truly epic fashion. I still can’t name more than three of the dwarves and I still think Peter Jackson included far too many callbacks to the previous trilogy, but I really enjoyed “Smaug” and have much higher hopes for the finale, “There and Back Again” coming in December.
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Now that I've gotten through the backlog of prestige pics, it's time to catch up with some of last year's superhero films. 2013 wasn't a very good year for superheroes, though they were among the top box office moneymakers, as usual. I found both "The Wolverine" and "Thor: The Dark World" pretty underwhelming, so I'm covering both in a single post.

First there's James Mangold's "The Wolverine," a perfectly noble second attempt at building a feature film around Hugh Jackman's "X-men" character. This time Logan is summoned to Japan, where an old acquaintance, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who Logan met during WWII is dying of old age. He wants Logan's help in extending his life, and out hero quickly gets himself entangled in the messy affairs of the Yashida family. He falls in love with Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), becomes allies with her mutant foster sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a precognitive, and gets on the bad side of Mariko's father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a new femme fatale, the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

"The Wolverine" mostly avoids the pitfalls of the 2009 "Wolverine" feature, delivering some decent action scenes and delving into Logan's past. It also does an admirable job of addressing the fallout from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears in several dream sequences. It's refreshing to see a superhero film that isn't afraid to slow down a little and really delve into some character drama. However, I'm sorry to say that as with most American action films set in Japan, the Orientalism is laid on pretty thick, and the Yashidas aren't a particularly compelling bunch. Tao Okamoto as Logan's new love interest is a bland presence, and the movie doesn't do enough to sell the romance. I liked Rila Fukushima's Yukio, though, and hope she carries over to future "X-men" movies.

It's hard to escape the film feeling very perfunctory, a story that was necessary to get Logan from point A to Point B, in light of the mid-credits sequence and the new "X-men" movie coming this summer. As a stand-alone adventure it works, but there's not much in it that is particularly memorable or stands out. It's hard to see where a third "Wolverine" movie could go from here, since so little of consequence seems to have happened in his solo films so far. Still, compared to some of the other superhero films this year, at least "The Wolverine" managed to make good use of its central character and tell a coherent, fully-formed story.

I wish the same could be said of "Thor: The Dark World." I found the first "Thor" film to be a terribly flawed piece of work, and among the worst of the Marvel superhero movies. The sequel is better in some ways, but overall about on par. It builds on the existing characters and character dynamics to good effect, but at the same time it wastes an awful lot of potential and the plotting is about as slapdash and messy as the first.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still keeping the peace in the Nine Realms while his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been locked up by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his shenanigans on Earth in "The Avengers." Soon enough a new threat, the Dark Elves lead by a baddie named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) are invading Asgard and threatening Earth too. Thor's human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the mess when she accidentally becomes a vessel for a destructive power called the Aether that Malekith wants. Thor and Loki have to team up, as you might expect, to defeat the new foe.

"The Dark World" relies on a lot of energetic chaos to make it feel like important things are constantly happening, but it's all very shallow and unsatisfying. The villains are utterly one-dimensional, and Malekith has no discernible personality whatsoever. I felt bad for Eccleston, buried under all the make-up with little to do except posture in an intimidating manner. Natalie Portman gets a little more autonomy this time out, but Jane's relationship with Thor remains largely unexamined, which would be all right if it had been properly established in the previous film, but it wasn't of course. A possible love triangle with Jamie Alexander's Sif is alluded to, but nothing comes of it aside from people exchanging meaningful looks at opportune moments.

So the heart of this Thor movie is once again Thor's relationship with his wayward brother Loki, and thank goodness because Loki remains the only interesting villainous character in the entire run of Marvel movies so far. Tom Hiddleston is not onscreen for nearly long enough, but when he does show up he plays a big part in keeping the film's momentum going and making it feel like there are actual stakes to the story. Also, his performance is a lot of fun, as usual, and Hemsworth's Thor tends to work better in his vicinity too. At this point I'm convinced that Loki is more vital to the "Thor" movies than Thor is.

Alan Taylor takes over directing duties from Kenneth Branagh, and he's fine. There's not much to say about the action or the effects, except that they are very competently executed. There are some nice visuals, like a floating truck and some spiffy monsters, but nothing particularly noteworthy. The comic relief, in the form of Kat Dennings' Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard's Erik Selvig are more emphatically comic this time out, which won't be to everyone's tastes, but I thought they were fine. And at least they are properly identified this time as Jane's intern and mentor respectively.

I'm sure there will be a third "Thor" movie, but I'm not especially excited for it. These movies have gotten so episodic that it feels like I'm tuning in to a television series. And "Thor: The Dark World" was mostly filler.
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Oh, the wails and lamentations going around the internet today! The cast of the new reboot of "The Fantastic Four" was just announced, and reactions have been less than stellar. Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic. Jamie Bell as Ben Grimes, The Thing. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. Kate Mara as Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman. Why is the Human Torch black while his sister is white? Why are all the male member of the cast under the age of thirty? They're all supposed to be these super competent scientists, right? Why on earth is skinny Jamie Bell playing the team's hulking bruiser, Ben Grimes? What are FOX and director Josh Trank thinking?!

Well, the film isn't due in theaters until 2015, and Miller and Bell are still in negotiations, but I think that if the casting reports are correct, this movie is looking much more promising now, and potentially could be a huge improvement over the terrible 2005 and 2007 "Fantastic Four" movies. This is a great collection of up-and-comers. Teller is coming off of "The Spectacular Now" and "Whiplash," which picked up the major awards at Sundance this year. Michael B. Jordan carried "Fruitvale Station," and already worked with Trank in "Chronicle." Jamie Bell is still best known for "Billy Elliott," but has been doing solid work in smaller parts for well over a decade now. And Kate Mara? She's done mostly TV work but that includes two seasons as a major player on Netflix's "House of Cards." It's a lineup that more than matches up to what we had in the previous films, which featured Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, and a pre- "Captain America" Chris Evans as The Human Torch.

Best of all, this looks to be a major departure from the established conception of the "Fantastic Four," which was always a little goofy and retro with a very 1960s vibe. The movie versions handled by Tim Story didn't help much, offering silly, forgettable B-movie action and sub-par visuals. Comic book fans bemoaned the fact that they wasted some of the Marvel Universe's most beloved villains like Dr. Doom and Galactus, never mind that we were somehow expected to be taking villains with names like Dr. Doom and Galactus seriously. This time around, we've been getting rumors that the new movie will be based on the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" a comic-book series that significantly modernized and reworked the characters, and introduced an entirely different origin story. So why not a more progressive movie version with a black Human Torch and a trimmer Thing? And adoption or remarriage easily accounts for the Storms having different skin tones.

The stakes have been raised for superhero movies in recent years, as comic book characters have become valuable commodities. FOX may have started the trend of modern superhero movies with "Blade" and "X-men," but they've fallen behind Marvel, are less visible than Sony or Warners, and have been struggling to catch up for a while now. "Fantastic Four" is one of their most promising properties, but if they don't make it into a hit, they may have to let the rights revert back to Marvel, whose films show no sign of slowing down. FOX has announced some big plans, potentially connecting "Fantastic Four" to their "X-men" movie universe, so there's a lot riding on this movie. The choice of Trank as a director is a good one, since he helmed one of the best superhero movies in recent years, the found-footage action film "Chronicle."

Is there the risk of alienating existing "Fantastic Four" fans? Sure, but it's not exactly a healthy franchise at the moment. Unlike the Batman and Spider-man movies, the most recent "Fantastic Four" films were critical busts and audiences didn't like them much either, which is why only two were made. Many older fans have fond memories of the comics and cartoons, and the characters enjoy a lot of name recognition and pop culture clout, but it's mostly of the nostalgic variety. The new film will be targeting younger audiences, and there aren't many under the age of twenty-five who are particularly familiar with the source material anymore. Nobody was fantasy casting The Thing. In short, it's one of the comic book properties that could probably most benefit the most from some vigorous reinvention.

The "Fantastic Four" reboot had barely been on my radar before this, but I'm much more interested in where it's going now. It's got a good group of people attached who deserve a shot at making this work. I can understand the trepidation from viewers who have only seen Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan in "The Awkward Moment," or got attached to Michael Chiklis, but this could turn out to be something really interesting. Stay tuned.
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My position on remakes has always been that they are not inherently a bad idea. There have been some great remakes over the years, where filmmakers have put their own spin on old plots and characters to wonderful effect, sometimes even surpassing the originals. However, too often you get remakes that fail to deliver, where the material proves too outdated, where the filmmakers don't bring anything interesting to the table, or where the execution just falls short. Worst of all are the remakes that are little more than retreads of the originals, where everything plays out almost the same, except in a modern, local milieu that is easier for mainstream audiences to connect to. Sadly both the recent "Carrie" and "Oldboy" remakes fall into this category.

Both of these were projects that sounded like they had potential when they were first announced. "Carrie" was in the hands of Kimberly Pierce, who made the well-regarded "Boys Don't Cry" and "Stop-Loss." The story had been revisited a few times already in recent years with a sequel and a TV remake, but this new project had attracted a stronger cast, including up-and-comer Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. "Oldboy" was a more high profile project that had been in development for years, at one point connected with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith before it ended up with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin. Lee's track record hasn't been great lately, but he was coming off of the solid indie feature "Red Hook Summer," and had made very strong genre films in the past like "Inside Man."

Sadly, it's hard to think of two remakes with less justification for existing. They're both perfectly decent films, and even manage to do a few thing better than their predecessors. Some of the action scenes in the new "Carrie" are stronger, and the hotel sequence in the new "Oldboy" is a lot of fun. However, both clearly follow the templates of the prior movies, to the point where shots and dialogue are recycled verbatim. No attempt seems to have been made to go back to the source material, Stephen King's "Carrie" novel and Garon Tsuchiya's "Old Boy" manga. The influence of each director is fairly minimal, and what changes have been made are fairly cosmetic. It's hard to see Spike Lee's hand at work in "Old Boy" aside from the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role and some of the set decoration.

I found "Carrie" the more egregious offender because it's so utterly rote. Aside from the introduction of cel-phone videos and internet bullying, almost nothing has been updated from the 1970s version. Also, much of the content has been toned down and the characters undermined. Moretz's Carrie is more assertive, which makes her less pitiable. Moore's religious fanatic mother is more humane, which makes her less monstrous and much less entertaining. The film is rated R, but it's fairly tame, and none of the horror is properly horrific. Pierce's direction is disappointingly workmanlike, and I found myself missing De Palma's campiness. The remake is such a toothless, lifeless piece of work, that stinks of good intentions and a total lack of guts. The last thing we need is a kinder, gentler "Carrie."

Now Spike Lee at least got his "Oldboy" off to a good start, giving his protagonist a little more depth and delivering some good early sequences. However, the Korean "Oldboy" was a pulpy, over-the-top action film with a really haphazard story that only worked because Park Chan-wook and his star, Choi Min-Sik were so committed to the high octane style and escalating insanity. Lee never manages to hit the same level of no-holds-barred energetic mayhem, try as he may, so the narrative in the new "Oldboy" doesn't work at all. Brolin plays it way too sane. The female lead played by Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do anything that makes sense. Sharlto Copley's nutball villain seems to be operating at about the right level of crazy, but since no one else it, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Both films seem hampered by expectations and an unwillingness to depart from formula. They're both determined to give the audience what I guess the filmmakers and the executives thought the audience wanted. A new version of the hammer fight from "Old Boy." A new version of the bloody prom scene. Never mind that both end up feeling perfunctory and unsatisfying because they're so beholden to the originals. I would love to see what an uncompromised Spike Lee Joint version of "Oldboy" would look like, one where Samuel L. Jackson isn't just stuck playing a secondary tough guy with funny hair. Or a "Carrie" that really tackles modern high school bullying and religious fanaticism.

Because the remakes that Hollywood gave us are just a shameful waste of good material.

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Minor spoilers ahead.

I'm doing some catching up on my British crime dramas. The second series of "Luther" felt like a big step down form the first, because the overarching story simply wasn't as compelling and the new characters were less interesting. Fortunately the third series is a big improvement on both fronts. Luther gets a major new antagonist in DSI George Stark (David O'Hara), who with the help of DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is secretly investigating Luther for corruption and misconduct, a thread that carries through the whole series.

Like the last round, we get four episodes this time out, which can be neatly split into a pair of two-parters. Unlike last time, though, this series is much better paced and more cohesive. The first half has Luther juggling a pair of cases simultaneously, the murder of an internet troll, and multiple attacks by serial killer with some peculiar fetishes. His partner Ripley (Warren Brown) is contacted by Stark and Gray, who want his cooperation with their investigation of Luther, casting doubts on Ripley's loyalty. Luther also gets a new love interest, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), who gets roped into the action in the second half of the series, where Luther is pitted against an attention-seeking vigilante killer who likes going after criminals he doesn't think have been punished enough.

"Luther" has always been bloodier and more gruesome than your average television crime drama, and that's certainly the case in this set of episodes, where we meet some pretty memorable, depraved perpetrators. There's about one gut-churning, avert-your-eyes moment per episode and plenty of high tension thrills throughout. Fortunately for the squeamish, this is well balanced by the character drama of the more thoughtful investigation storyline. Previous series have questioned how far over the line Luther can push before going too far, but the way the investigation story is framed, Luther is invariably shown to be in the right, and the focus is largely on Ripley and then other characters grappling with the decision of what side they'll come down on.

Luther himself has gotten cuddlier as a character, his demons still in residence but further beneath the surface. He has a few flares of temper when met with hurdles during his cases, but few moments of the truly uneasy ambiguity that made his morality such a puzzle in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the series plays out fine with Luther as a more typical good guy, but it makes the character and the series undeniably different from what came before. Idris Elba remains charismatic and appealing and so John Luther is still easy to stay invested in. If we take show creator Neil Cross's claim that this is the last series of "Luther" at face value, then I think it's perfectly satisfactory to have our hero close out the series on the side of angels for good.

"Luther" is not particularly sophisticated stuff, still dependent to a large extent on action and thrills, but the performances are good, the production values remain very high, and the writing is much stronger this year. The second series' sore thumb damsel in distress, Jenny, has been replaced with Guillory's Mary, who seems an unlikely love match for John Luther, but at least she's a more logically sound character with a good sense of autonomy. Warren Brown gets a good amount of the spotlight this year and sells several big moments. I also want to highlight the work of guest stars, Kevin Fuller and Elliott Cowan, who play this year's two most colorful murderers. I still miss Indira Varma and Saskia Reeves from the first season, but not nearly as much.

And what about Alice Morgan, Luther's serial killer associate who remains one of the show's best creations? There's been some talk of spinning her off for her own show, which I'm behind 100%. However, "Luther" stays mum on the subject. Let's just say that she has a part to play in the new series, but how big a part and the nature of the part is a big spoiler. Ruth Wilson has been busy with film roles lately, so I'll caution fans of Alice not to expect much. The new series is a perfectly good watch without her contributions in any case.

The next we'll see of "Luther" is reportedly a theatrical feature, which sounds like a great idea. The character is in a good position to jump to the big screen, and a feature would be a great vehicle to push Idris Elba's profile higher. The recent series have been so short, they feel like features already to a great extent. If the show ends here, though, I wouldn't be all that upset. "Luther" has had a good run and the third series ends in a very satisfying way.

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Okay, no waiting until March this year. Sundance and the Superbowl are behind us, and I've got a pretty good bead on the titles I'm looking forward to. Like last year, I'm splitting this topic up between the bigger, mainstream releases, and the smaller, artsier prestige titles. And if previous lists have been any indication, several of the latter are probably going to be delayed until 2015. Since I've already covered them in previous posts, I will not be talking about foreign options that are only getting their U.S. releases this year like "Mood Indigo" and "Snowpiercer." Also, I think I've said enough about "X-Men," "Interstellar," and "Transcendence" in past entries. Here we go. Big titles up first:

"Godzilla" - I can't help it. I love big destructive action movies and kaiju-big-battle movies in particular. My biggest criticism of last year's "Pacific Rim" is that there weren't enough monsters. The newest attempt to revive the "Godzilla" franchise in the west is being directed by Gareth Edwards of "Monsters," and if I had any worries about his relatively thin filmography, they were quashed by the excellent teaser trailer that we got last year. It doesn't hurt that Frank Darabont contributed to the screenplay, and the cast is stacked with names like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" - Let's be honest. The Marvel universe films feel like they've been on autopilot lately with three sequels in a row. Fortunately they've got more interesting titles coming up, including "Guardians," which is going to be a major departure for the franchise in terms of style and subject matter. Call this a superhero film if you must, but from where I'm sitting this is a space adventure movie, about a rag-tag team of aliens doing battle with the forces of evil. Observers have warned that the premise may be too out there for general audience to take - one of our heoes is a talking raccoon - but it looks to me like exactly the kind of creative shot of adrenaline that the Marvel films need to keep going through Phase 2 and into Phase 3.

"The Boxtrolls" - Laika's last two stop-motion animated films, "Coraline" and "Paranorman" have been excellent, so of course I'm looking forward to their next one, "Boxtrolls," about an orphan boy who has been raised by a tribe of friendly trolls who live in cardboard boxes. The villain will be an evil exterminator voiced by Ben Kingsley. Really, how can I say no to this? There have already been two delightful teasers released for the film, the most recent one focusing on the laborious process of stop-motion animation. It looks like it could be a very good year for cartoon features, with the "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel, the Lego movie, and the next title on this list.

"Big Hero 6" - Disney Feature Animation has been on a roll these past few years, and it looks like they've worked out a good long-term strategy for themselves. Instead of trying to transition away from the girl-centric fairy-tale films that have been their biggest hits, toward more boy-friendly action features, which got the studio in trouble in the past, instead they're taking turns between both kinds of stories. So after the princesses of "Frozen," next holiday season we're getting a wacky superhero movie set in an anime-inspired universe full of giant robots and Japanese food puns. This will also mark PIXAR's first collaboration with Marvel, which is providing the film's source material.

"Annie" - The 1982 version of "Annie" directed by John Huston (yes, really) was one of my favorites when I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to the updated version starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the new Little Orphan Annie and Jamie Foxx as Benjamin Stacks, this version's Daddy Warbucks. Director Will Gluck hasn't handled a musical before, but I have liked some of his previous films, especially "Easy A." Jay-Z is handling the music, and after the fantastic job he did with "The Great Gatsby," I have a lot of confidence he'll be able to pull this off too. "Annie" will be Columbia's big Christmas release this year, but it's going to have to compete with a certain Disney musical that's also on its way.

"Into the Woods" - Now this could turn out to be terrible. All the movies on this list easily might be. However, I just love the idea that somebody is finally bringing Steven Sondheim's musical about fairy-tale characters facing the consequences of their fanciful adventures to the big screen. And because it's Disney, we're getting an all-star cast including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, along with a few others who can actually sing. Rob Marshall's directing career has been very hit or miss, but he's a good fit for this material and I'm looking forward to the end result.
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