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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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Michel Gondry made one truly exceptional film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ten years ago, and hasn't quite gotten back to that level since. HIs subsequent projects have all been interesting and watchable (with the exception of a certain superhero reboot that wasn't really his fault), but none have had quite the same clarity and resonance of that Charlie Kaufman-scripted love story. "Mood Indigo" isn't quite "Eternal Sunshine" either, but it does get fairly close. It's an ungainly, over-designed, exhausting film to watch because Gondry gives full rein to his usual whimsical stylization, but there is a solid core to it that gives it some real kick.

Based on Boris Vian's surrealist science-fiction romance novel "Foam of the Daze," "Mood Indigo" tells the story of a man named Colin (Romain Duris) who lives a carefree life with his talented man-servant Nicholas (Omar Sy), bibliophile friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and a mouse roommate (Sacha Bourdo). After Chick gets a girlfriend, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin decides that he too should fall in love, and soon after meets the lovely Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Colin and Chloe enjoy a whirlwind romance, but alas their happiness is short-lived. Chloe becomes ill, Chick and Alise's relationship becomes strained, and Colin's charmed life is soon beset on all sides by misfortune.

It's always a tricky prospect to make a surrealist film, and Gondry's approach seems to have been to translate every element I imagine was metaphorical in the source material as literally as possible for the screen. Colin appears to live in a Parisian Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Nicholas consults with a cooking mentor who inhabits the oven, and the doorbell is a bug-like creature who has to be swatted to be silenced. At one point the walls physically close in on Colin when he receives bad news. Some of these conceits work, like a character who literally ages years in days due to worry, but others, like a dance sequence where all the characters are obliged to don cartoonish, elongated prosthetic limbs, do not. Some are too literal or too obviously analogues, so the film lacks the truly absurdist free-wheeling nature of something like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors." And I don't think anything involving the mouse character worked at all.

When I'd first heard that the distributors wanted to edit the film down for international release, I was completely against the idea, but now having seen it for myself, I think it's a reasonable choice. "Mood Indigo" has pacing problems and could stand some trimming, especially in the meandering first half that chronicles new love in bloom. Gondry's wild visual inventiveness is always interesting, and I appreciated his efforts, but they kept getting in the way of his storytelling. I've liked Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou in other films, but here their bubbly love connection is not so much enhanced by all the graphic blandishment, but weirdly disconnected from it, such that it feels like the couple is enduring each new scenario - a flight in a cloud car, a picnic that takes place in the sun and the rain at the same time - instead of embodying them.

The story and visuals mesh together considerably better in the second half of the film when things take a darker turn. Suddenly all the whimsy and delight begins to transition to decay and despair, and the central relationship becomes truly compelling as the pair begin to face hardship and doubt. There's a greater universality to Colin and Chloe's downward spiral, and Gondry is more adept at reflecting them in their surroundings. The performances come into sharper focus, particular Roman Duris's, and the supporting characters become more important and are better defined. I especially enjoyed the arc of Chick, who obsesses over a particular writer to such a degree that he finds new ways to consume his writings by turning them into injections and eyedrops, until his whole life is consumed by them.

For fans of Michel Gondry's work, this is about as Gondry as it gets. Though the production values of "Mood Indigo" aren't as high as those of the films he made in Hollywood, his ambitions are as large as ever, he clearly wasn't working under any studio constraints, and he attracted all the right talent to the project. Though there are a lot of missteps, I found this to be a much more cohesive and successful film than anything else Gondry has produced in a long time. Though the documentaries and smaller projects like "The We and the I" have been all well and good, it's the larger fantasy projects like this that continue to be his most distinctive and rewarding. It's hard to imagine anyone else making a film like this, with such commitment and such fearlessness.

"Mood Indigo" is far from perfect, but there's enough good mixed in with the mediocre that I'm glad it got made. I do hope Michel Gondry keeps shooting for the moon. He may never make another "Eternal Sunshine," but his work is always worthwhile.
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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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The original "Twilight Zone" that aired from 1959 to 1964 remains one of my fondest media touchstones. I watched the marathons every year at New Years, borrowed the companion book from the local library multiple times, and freaked out classmates by recapping my favorite episodes for them while waiting in the lunch line. So here's a very overdue Top Ten list of my favorite episodes. As always, entries are unranked and listed in order of airdate.

"Time Enough at Last" - Burgess Meredith starred in four different "Twilight Zone" episodes, but Henry Bemis, the little man with the big glasses who just wants some time to read, is by far the most memorable. Like so many of these episodes, the story is simple but the execution is magnificent, delivering one of the cruelest ironies in all of science-fiction. It also made it clear to the audience that the series had teeth from very early on.

"Mirror Image" - A young woman at a bus depot waiting for her ride out of town spots a perfect doppelganger of herself. It's a wonderful, paranoid scenario that hints at sinister forces in the universe just waiting to take advantage of us in a vulnerable moment. Where the more high concept stories have lessened in effectiveness for me over time, I've noticed it's the simpler, more universal episodes like this that tend to stick with me.

"The Eye of the Beholder" - Everyone knows the famous twist ending, and even if you don't I'm sure it's pretty easy for modern audiences to guess. However, that doesn't take away from how wonderfully the reveal is handled, and the horror of this all too familiar dystopian world where conformity is so highly prized. I love the long, tense buildup to the climax too, something that few shows are brave enough to do anymore.

"It's a Good Life" - What is the point of this episode? That small children are really monsters? That innocence can be as awful as knowing evil? There is no point, except for the series to present us with a particularly potent nightmare scenario that continues to make me squirm at the thought. The version of the story in the "Twilight Zone" movie is even more sadistic and terrifying, though it famously bungled the bleak original ending.

"The Midnight Sun" - Scientifically, it's easy to dismiss the story as complete bunk, but of all the apocalypse scenarios that "The Twilight Zone" featured, this remains my favorite. We often hear about the world theoretically burning up in a fireball, but to see the effects of of such a disaster unfolding in slow motion, and to see the psychological effects on the desperate populace up close really helps the idea to hit home.

"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" - One of the simplest and most existential episodes with a charmingly sentimental ending. I don't think this one works for everybody because it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the reveal may be too twee or too incongruous with the rest of the story for some. However, I liked the mystery and appreciated the completely out-of-left field explanation for the characters' state of limbo.

"Nothing in the Dark" - An old woman afraid of Death secludes herself in her home, determined to keep him out. As good as the show was at scaring and disturbing its viewers, I always appreciated that occasionally it could deliver an installment as touching and humane as this one. "Nothing in the Dark" is also notable for featuring two acting greats of different eras: Golden Age actress Gladys Cooper and a very young Robert Redford.

"To Serve Man" - When you think about it, the whole premise is based on a very silly pun that has been thoroughly lampooned over the years by everyone from "Naked Gun" to "The Simpsons." Still, the episode is a lot of fun with the big goofy Kanamit aliens (hey, it's Richard Kiel!), the recycled props and effects footage from famous period sci-fi movies, and a story that delivers a big old wallop to humanity's collective ego.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" - That's a young William Shatner freaking out at the "thing on the wing," in one of the undisputed "Twilight Zone" classics. Anyone who has ever been nervous about flying understands his character's terror, which director Richard Donner ramps up to terrific heights. This was another story remade for the "Twilight Zone" movie by Geroge Miller with John Lithgow - and their take is actually better than the original.

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" - Often shown together with "Eye of the Beholder" to underline the criticism of our looks-obsessed culture, "Number 12" seems to get more relevant every year and you can see its influence all over the media landscape. The ending of this one always got to me, not because our heroine ends up physically conforming with everybody else, but because she ends up thinking like everybody else too, which is far scarier.

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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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Minor spoilers ahead.

I initially pegged "Carnivàle" as a slow-moving, atmospheric supernatural show that didn't concern itself overmuch with plot. Well, in season two the plot showed up with a vengeance. While the complicated series mythology remains largely unexamined, it soon becomes inevitable that our two protagonists, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin will have their destined confrontation by the last episode of the season, and the series becomes a much more goal-oriented, focused piece of work in order to get them there. Instead of waiting for the apocalypse to arrive, now key characters are actively in search of it.

Spurred by newfound purpose, Ben puts his doubts aside and becomes a hero the audience can really root for, while Brother Justin descends into the depths of villainy in pursuit of power. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown's performances really kick into high gear, and are a lot of fun. However, the effect of putting so much focus on this pair is that for much of the season the rest of the cast gets sidelined. I wouldn't say they're neglected since there there are strong subplots and character arcs for most of the regulars, particularly the Dreifuss family, Jonesy, Samson, and Sophie, but we see far less of the little character portraits and backstory that was prevalent in the first season. It's also very noticeable that the cast has been reduced by several members.

A few new characters and some strong guest stars help to pick up the slack. Notably there's a new villain, Varlyn Stroud, played by John Carroll Lynch, who Brother Justin sets on Ben's trail like a bloodhound. However, the ones who make the most of an impression tend to be the ones with the least amount of screen time. I love how "Carnivàle" consistently manages to create these fully-formed characters who only appear for a few minutes, some who are totally incidental to the plot. A German hotel clerk and a nameless old man on the road who Ben gets information from are as memorable as some of the major players. There are so many I wish we could have spent more time getting to know.

This season is more fulfilling from a writing standpoint. Though the the pace remains fairly slow, there are far more frequent payoffs to the various storylines, and the status quo changes irrevocably several times. What the series loses in simmering mystery, it gains in strong plotting and a bolder narrative. I found I got much more attached to characters like Jonesy and Samson when they were put in a position to be more active and make more important choices. Meanwhile, those left treading water with dead-end developments like poor Ruthie were more frustrating to watch. Easily the character I found the most improved was Amy Madigan's Iris, whose motivations are much better defined this year. With much of Brother Justin's inner struggle resolved, the spotlight turns to his devoted sister and her myriad sins.

There were some things in this season that came off as rather contrived - someone's gambling problem materializes out of nowhere, the fallout from Lodz's absence is a distraction that doesn't really come to much, and Sophie's existential crisis gets awfully convoluted - but eventually the show finds its groove again when it counts. The back half of the season is one of the most enjoyable runs of episodes I've seen in a long time, finding ways to get all the characters involved in the final battle and building up the suspense to terrific heights. After seeing so many similar supernatural genre programs fail to stick their landings, it's incredibly gratifying to see "Carnivàle" execute a properly epic and apocalyptic showdown so well.

The world of "Carnivàle" remains a source of fascinating horrors. More than once I was reminded of Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comics, with their abundance of uniquely American grotesques. Ben Hawkins runs across several varieties of them in his travels, and of course Brother Justin is one as well. The second season had to undergo some budget cuts and it shows. The carnival scenes are scaled back and crowds are thinner. Still, the effects and makeup work remain top of the line, and the production design of the Depression Era setting is consistently gorgeous. You can see the dust and grit in every frame. And I just love the little details like Libby Dreifuss's bleached hair starting to show its roots in a later episode, and that Lila uses a single curler for her beard. After a decade the series doesn't look like it's aged a day.

I'm not particularly upset that "Carnivàle" ended after this season, because I knew it was going to be truncated from the start and the finale was strong enough and decisive enough that it left me satisfied. "Carnivàle" feels like a complete story even though I know that more was planned. This is certainly one of the best HBO productions I've seen so far, and the most unique.

Looks like it's on to "Deadwood" next.
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Yesterday we took a look at the big studio pictures with real box office prospects. Today it's time for the more modest, but probably more rewarding films of 2014 that I'm looking forward to. Movies that were delayed from last year, including Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," are being left off. And here we go:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's latest is so obviously the work of Wes Anderson, there's no point in even pointing out the avalanche of aesthetic quirks or the presence of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson anymore. However, this time around Ralph Fiennes has joined the fun and the tone looks a touch zanier and more broadly comedic, which is hitting all the right buttons for me. There's also something about the color palette with its rich purples and candy pinks that really make the visuals pop. I'm sure the film itself will turn out to be all too familiar, but I can't bring myself to care one bit.

"The Cobbler" - Thomas McCarthy hasn't made a film that I've disliked yet, from "The Station Agent" to "Win Win." And though I dislike Adam Sandler's typical comedies, when he tries something smaller and more heartfelt, the results can be fantastic. These two sound like they would work well together, so I'm looking forward to "The Cobbler," where Sandler will star as a shoe repairman who discovers a magic MacGuffin that literally lets him "walk in another man's shoes." This is a premise that a big studio would happily turn into yet another idiot comedy, but with McCarthy writing and directing, I'm pretty optimistic.

"Ex Machina" - Alex Garland, the screenwriter of "Never Let Me Go" and many of Danny Boyle's films will be making his directorial debut with the science fiction film "Ex Machina," which has some similarities to last year's "Her." This time the AI is a female robot played by Alicia Vikander and the story is a psychological thriller instead of a straight romance. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also star. It's a low budget, small scale film that is being produced in the UK, so it might be a while before we get to see it stateside. The premise and the cast have me excited though, and I'm adding it to this year's ever-growing list of intriguing, ambitious science fiction films.

"Whiplash" and "The Voices" - There are quite a few interesting titles that have emerged from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm keeping an eye out for, including "Skeleton Twins," "Life Itself," and "Dear White People." However, there are two in particular that I want to highlight. First, there's the "Whiplash," the tale of a young drummer played by Miles Teller that took home the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Then there's "The Voices," the latest from "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, where Ryan Reynolds plays a seemingly ordinary man who accidentally kills a woman, and now his benevolent dog and evil cat are both speaking to him, trying to persuade him of what he should do next.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" - Swedish auteur Roy Andersson makes bleak satires with painstakingly composed visuals, many of them incredibly elaborate. He's only released two films over the past fifteen years, but they've both been brilliant. "Pigeon" is expected to complete the trilogy. Production diaries have been slowly appearing on the internet over the past several months, and the project appears to be finally nearing completion. As it's been seven years since the last Andersson film, this is definitely going to be a cinematic event. Not much is known about the story yet, but it apparently involves salesmen, near brushes with death, and explaining why society is the way it is.

"Gone Girl" - David Fincher's been out of the game since his adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I'm glad to see him back on the slate, even if he's decided his latest crime thriller should star Ben Affleck - I'm still not sold on him as an actor. However, the original author of the source novel, Gillian Flynn, is penning the screenplay and has apparently entirely rewritten the third act for the adaptation. This one's already gearing up for an Oscar campaign, with a release date set for October and an unusual bit of early marketing - a provocative "Entertainment" Weekly cover picturing Affleck and co-star Rosamund Pike referencing the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Rolling Stone" portrait.

"Inherent Vice" - Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. That's really all I need to know. Based on the Thomas Pynchon detective novel, this will be another period piece, set at the end of the '60s in Los Angeles. Filming was completed last year, so there's every likelihood that we'll see "Inherent Vice" in theaters by the end of 2014. The novel has been described as noir crossed with psychedelia, which might make me worried if this were any other director. Fortunately Anderson, coming off of "The Master," is more than qualified to handle the notoriously difficult Pynchon material. As the highest profile prestige project of the year so far, this one's going to get a lot more press in the months to come.
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I think we need a little break from the prestige pics, don't you?

It's now been roughly two-and-a-half years since the end of the "Harry Potter" film series, giving us the necessary distance to look back more critically at the whole set. I saw all but two of the movies in theaters, and count myself as a casual fan. I was in college when the first installment hit the big screen, so nostalgia never really colored my view of "Harry Potter," and I'm pretty confident in my assessment of the individual movies, enough to write this post anyway. So from the best, to the least, here's how I rank the "Harry Potter" films:

The Prisoner of Azkaban - Bringing on Alphonso Cuarón to direct the third installment was a vital course correction after the two Chris Columbus films that were a little too faithful and a little too safe. "Azkaban" is darker, gloomier, and you start getting a sense of the bigger and more forbidding challenges that lay ahead. The kids begin to assert themselves more as actors, and the we see some real depth to the characters at last. Best of all, this one actually works very well as a film, drastically cutting down the book to its essentials and making some notable departures.

The Deathly Hallows Part I - It's been argued that this is the installment that is the least necessary to the series, because the last book was unnecessarily split into two movies. Not much action happens here, with most of the running time devoted to tidying up plot threads and setting up the big finale. However, this is one of the few times that things slow down enough that you actually get some solid character development among the three leads. I also think that this is one of the best looking of the "Harry Potter" movies, with all the outdoors scenes set in these beautiful winter landscapes.

The Order of the Phoenix - The first of the "Harry Potter" films to be directed by David Yates, who would go on to helm the entire second half of the series. I rank this one so high because it's such a vast improvement over the unwieldy book in showing Harry's growing pains and gradual emergence as a leader. It also features one of my favorite villains in the series, Dolores Umbridge, as played by Imelda Staunton, and introduced its best comic relief, Evanna Lynch's Luna Lovegood. The ending was a little on the rough side - the big death doesn't work in any version - but satisfying.

The Chamber of Secrets - I seem to like this one more than most people, because while it may be relentlessly pandering to children and drenched in whimsy, it is a lot of fun. You have the sequences with the flying car and the giant spiders, which were a big step up in special effects from the downright shoddy CGI work in the first film. There's also Kenneth Branagh playing the pompous Gilderoy Lockhart and all the stuff with Dobby, which help to make up for some of the shortfalls in the plotting. It's a good reminder that there were far worse choices to handle these early movies than Chris Columbus.

The Deathly Hallows Part II - This one would probably be a little lower on the list if it weren't for the excellent work of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape. As fun as it was to watch a full scale battle at Hogwarts, there was always the feeling that it wasn't nearly as big or as epic as it could have been. So many familiar faces show up for only a second or two of screen time, and Voldemort is not nearly as menacing as he was in some of the previous films. Still, credit is due for sticking a tricky landing and ending the series in a much better place than were it began.

The Half Blood Prince - I haven't revisited this one since I first saw it, but I do recall how badly the big events of the ending got bungled and how that really undermined the rest of the film. Nonetheless, I liked the more melancholy atmosphere, especially the Draco sequences. Romance was never the strong suit of "Harry Potter," and it's a shame that it takes up so much of this movie. I wouldn't say Harry and Ginny's relationship is handled badly, but it feels inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, and not enough time is spent really ramping things up as we go into the finale.

The Sorcerer's Stone/The Philosopher's Stone - It's actually something of a shock to look at this film now and realize how mediocre it is. The effects are really very poor in places, especially anything involving the fantasy creatures. And it's almost off-putting how aggressively it pushes its fluffy fantasy aesthetic, with the oversaturated bright colors and bombastic John Williams score. Still, it does manage to present some lovely images, has a great sense of humor, and critically had all the right talent and casting in place to propel the series forward into much more ambitious territory.

The Goblet of Fire - Sorry Mike Newell, but I disliked "Goblet of Fire," which took a downright campy and goofy approach to a story that I thought was supposed to be another step toward darker and more grown-up material. This is the one where all the boys had long hair, a lot of time was wasted with a school dance, and we had what was possibly the worst acting by Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in all eight films. I was really worried about the series after this one, and it was a relief that none of the subsequent sequels got this wacky again.
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I'm in no hurry to rush out and see "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," even though I had it on my list of films I was most anticipating this season. The skyrocketing cost of tickets in my area, the long list of awards contenders I want to see, and the middling reviews have convinced me that this one can wait for disc or streaming. Besides, I already more or less know how it ends. I also didn't rush out to see "Thor: the Dark World" last month. The first "Thor" film was one of the least interesting Marvel films, and nothing about this new installment indicated it would be any better. I expect I'm also going to sit out "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" unless the critical notices are really fantastic.

It's not that I haven't been seeing genre films. I went to "Ender's Game" and "Frozen" in the last few weeks, and rented "The Wolverine." I'm highly anticipating the next "X-men" film and about a half dozen original science-fiction projects coming in 2014. However, the franchises have slowly but surely started losing their grip, and the studios have only themselves to blame. I actually saw all the Phase One Marvel films in theaters, and enjoyed most of them. The "Iron Man" sequels, however, did almost nothing to progress the story of Tony Stark in any way, and they ultimately felt like disposable filler episodes of a television serial. Now if the Marvel films were made for television I would still be tuning in, because television is designed to play out over multiple installments, and the costs of watching it are tiny. But movies require much more commitment - going to the theater, plunking down ticket money that could be going towards a month of Netflix, and hoping the audience behaves themselves.

For me, it's just not worth it anymore. These big franchises puff themselves up as event movies, but the individual installments have stopped feeling like events and more like obligations. Well, you're a "Lord of the Rings" fan so you really ought to see "The Hobbit." The trouble is that I didn't like the first "Hobbit" movie and all the press suggests that the second one suffers the same problems. I want to see the Smaug sequences and Peter Jackson's take on the famous barrel escape, but I'm dreading having to sit through all the original, invented material that was added to the movie to stretch it out to epic length. "Iron Man" was a great movie, my favorite superhero story of the past decade, but between weak villains and a total halt to his character development, the sequels just felt like retreads. "Avengers" at least did something new and different, putting all these different Marvel heroes together and seeing what happened. That's why I'm also still curious about the Batman and Superman movie Warners is putting out. That's why "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-man" still look interesting. I don't know what to expect from them yet.

I mean, in spite of the increased tolerance for higher and higher numbered sequels, we still have the same problems with sequelitis that we always did. If a film is part of a series with a predetermined ending like "Harry Potter" or "Hunger Games," quality tends to be fairly constant because they're adapting already successful source material. If a franchise is open-ended, however, like most of the superhero series, there's usually a big drop-off in quality after one or two movies. It's only the very rare beast like 007 or "X-men" that can reverse course, and in that case it usually requires a reboot, changing creatives, or making drastic alterations to the franchise formula. "X-Men: First Class" essentially had to do all three, and its upcoming sequels are going to involve a lot of genre-switching. Time travel and post-apocalypse narratives are being added to the pile.

As other industry observers have pointed out, predictability is a dangerous thing for these big movies, and the fact that they're all starting to look alike is a very bad sign. Over the summer we were getting warnings of disaster fatigue and chatter about superhero overload. The fact that Sony wants to build a "Spider-man" universe and FOX is trying to expand the "X-men" universe, and practically every other studio in town is looking for other ways to mimic the Marvel model means the problem is only going to get worse. We've long been aware that the longer these series go on, the more difficult it is for newcomers to jump into these movies. But for the existing fans, the more the studios treat the franchises like television shows, the more likely it is that audiences will start treating them like television shows and watching them like television shows. For some of us, that means skipping the filler. For some of us that means waiting until the whole thing's done and binge watching.
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Now before I get too far into this, I should make it clear that I haven't seen the new Disney film "Saving Mr. Banks" yet, about the contentious making of the 1964 Disney classic "Mary Poppins." However, I couldn't help but notice as I read over the cast list that an important figure from the "Mary Poppins" crew appeared to be missing from the new film. There were the credits for Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers, the Sherman brothers who composed all the songs, writer Don DaGradi, and actors playing "Poppins" stars Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke. But where was that film's director Robert Stevenson? After checking early reviews and audience reports, apparently he's nowhere to be found in "Saving Mr. Banks." And that's a serious omission.

As you might have heard, iconic Hollywood Golden Age actress Joan Fontaine passed away over the weekend. My favorite of her films was the 1943 version of "Jane Eyre" that she co-starred in with Orson Welles. The film was co-written and (despite rumors that Welles was running the production) directed by Robert Stevenson. He began his career in the UK and was best known for action films and historical dramas like "King Solomon's Mines" and "Tudor Rose." He was signed briefly with David O. Selznick when he first transitioned to Hollywood productions, but his career faltered in the 40s and he kept being shuttled around among the major studios, and at one point went off to Europe to make war documentaries.

After two decades in film, he moved into television in the '50s, where he was especially prolific, overseeing dozens of productions. He returned to filmmaking when Disney hired him to direct "Johnny Tremain" in 1957. Stevenson subsequently spent twenty years with the studio, directing some of the most famous live-action Disney films including "Old Yeller," "Darby O'Gill and the Little People", "The Absent-Minded Professor," "The Love Bug," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," and of course "Mary Poppins," which earned him a Best Director nomination from the Academy. He developed a particular facility with effects-driven films, a skill that put him in high demand, but he never left Disney. Thanks to his association with the studio, he was one of the most commercially successful directors of the '60s, and one of the highest paid. When I first looked up his filmmography, I discovered I'd seen a dozen of his films and never realized it. And I don't think there's a single one I haven't enjoyed.

Was he one of the filmmaking greats? No, but Stevenson established the template for the family-friendly comedic fantasy feature that Disney and many others still use to this day, and his work is far more influential than most people realize. Despite this, he has remained sadly under the radar. Sure, Stevenson was inducted into the Disney Legends in 2002, and he got a very nice obit in the New York Times when he passed in 1986, but he's hardly discussed at all in cinematic circles. There are the usual explanations for this: his work was considered too mainstream and commercial, his best known films were aimed at children, and the Disney branding overshadowed his personal contributions to his films. However, even in discussions of "Mary Poppins," his name barely comes up. This makes his exclusion from "Saving Mr. Banks" especially frustrating, because he was clearly a major player in the creation of the film.

"Mary Poppins" was a massively complicated production, full of special effects, animation, and multiple dance and musical sequences. It was the largest scale film Disney had ever attempted at the time. It was also by turns funny and whimsical, adventurous and exciting, reflective, thoughtful, and in the final sequences with Mr. Banks, melancholy and dramatic too. Stevenson managed to balance all these things, delivering a film that has been universally praised. It retains such a sterling reputation and has held up so well over the years that Disney is still profiting handsomely from its success after five decades.

I'm sure the "Saving Mr. Banks" filmmakers didn't exclude Stevenson on purpose - the focus of the new film is on P.L. Travers and her meetings with Walt Disney before "Mary Poppins" actually went into production - but like too many others they were remiss in overlooking Robert Stevenson's contributions.

Or to quote Billy Crystal, "Did this film direct itself?"

With the release of "Saving Mr. Banks," many are taking the opportunity to revisit "Mary Poppins," and I'm hoping this will also spark more interest in its forgotten director. Walt Disney deserves plenty of credit for his close involvement in the filmmaking process, for spearheading the project, and for convincing P.L. Travers to sign over the rights to her character in the first place, but I seriously doubt that the finished film would have come together as beautifully as it did without Robert Stevenson.
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There are so many expectations that have been heaped on the latest Disney CGI feature, "Frozen," that I feel obligated to start out this review by addressing some of them. Yes, the marketing campaign featuring Olaf the Snowman was terribly misleading, and "Frozen" is really much darker and more interesting than the slapstick-filled trailers made it look. Yes, it is a musical in the grand tradition of Disney musicals.

Unlike "Tangled," which was light on song numbers, "Frozen" boasts nine on its soundtrack, and for the first half hour more is sung than spoken. No, the movie is not a "Tangled" clone, though the designs are similar and it's clearly intended for the same audience. And finally, no, "Frozen" is not as good as the A+ Cinemascore and big box office returns would seem to indicate. It is very good as animated features go, and worth seeing, but expectations need some tempering.

So what is "Frozen" all about? A few elements from the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Snow Queen," are incorporated into a largely original, modern-minded fairy tale about two royal sisters. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are born princesses of the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. As children they are very close, but Elsa has magical abilities to summon ice and snow that get away from her one day, and cause a terrible accident, harming her little sister.

For everyone's safety, and particularly Anna's, Elsa shuts herself away from the world, and tries to control and suppress her powers. Anna is puzzled and hurt by the rejection, but Elsa maintains the distance between them, even after their parents tragically perish. However, another accident on Elsa's coronation day causes disaster for the kingdom and prompts Elsa to flee into the wilderness. Anna goes after her, with the help of a mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) that Elsa inadvertently brings to life with her magic.

At first glance, "Frozen" looks like a very typical Disney fairy-tale adaptation. You have the Broadway musical story structure, the goofy sidekicks, the bickering love birds, and not one, but two doe-eyed Disney heroines who sing about their feelings. However, "Frozen" actually subverts parts of the Disney formula, particularly some of the more troubling old conventions about love and romance. There are villains, but very different from the kind we typically see in Disney films. It's not clear at first whether Elsa is meant to be bad or good, as she's made to be extremely sympathetic, and when she acts like a villain, we understand why. She gets the film's showstopper, "Let it Go," a thrilling self-affirmation anthem that Idina Menzel knocks out of the park.

Moreover, while "Frozen" does have a lot of romance in it, the most important relationship is really between Elsa and Anna. Their sisterly bond is given far more attention and development than anything else in the film, and handled with considerably more thoughtfulness than the similar mother-daughter dynamics of last year's "Brave." Also, the treatment of Elsa's magic, referred to repeatedly as a "curse" has shades of the Beast's condition in "Beauty and the Beast." There are some very complex emotions and motivations in play that might go over the heads of the smallest members of the audience.

So luckily there's Olaf the Snowman, who is not nearly as precious or as cloying as he looked in the previews. Instead, he's a good reminder of why movies like this have comic relief, because that's exactly what he brings to the story, When things get too dark or grim, there's sincere, sweet-natured, dim-witted Olaf to jump into the fray and lighten the mood for a few minutes here, or ten seconds there. He and Sven the reindeer are extremely well deployed, mostly staying on the sidelines but pitching in when appropriate. Olaf in particular is a great character, a subtle manifestation of Elsa's softer side.

Given all the things that "Frozen" does right, it feels stingy to point out that the movie is far from perfect. The music is hit-or-miss, an acceptable approximation of the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the earlier Disney musicals, but not at the same level. The three acts that are all very well plotted and well written, but tonally might as well be three different movies. Elsa, despite being the most interesting character by far, gets an abbreviated arc that doesn't really deal with the impact of her transformation. And then there's Anna, perfectly likeable, but also clearly Rapunzel-lite.

The film was made on a very short timeline, and I expect a lot of these problems could have been ironed out if the filmmakers had a little more breathing room. At the same time, what they managed to accomplish in that span is astonishing. The visuals are a clear step up from "Tangled," full of gorgeous snow and ice effects, and still retaining that ineffable Disney atmosphere. The heroes are an unusually well-rounded bunch, with Kristoff and Anna's princely suitor Hans (Santino Fontana) making for a nice departure from the usual Disney love interests.

I'm glad to see Disney Animation's fortunes on the rise again. "Frozen" makes for a strong addition to their library, more promising than fulfilling ultimately, but definitely another big step in the right direction.
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It was a mixed year for "The Legend of Korra," with animation studios getting swapped around, too many different plots going on in the beginning, and Korra herself revealing deep flaws that felt like a major step backwards from her character progression last year. However, when all was said and done, I liked this season much better than the previous one. It has several episodes that are among the best things the "Avatar" team has ever done.

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

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

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

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

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

I'm a little worried about how the series is going to progress from here, because we've still got at least two more Books coming down the pipeline, and yet again the story seems to have wrapped up pretty nicely. It's hard to say where the story could go from here - maybe they'll finally do something with Zuko's grandson?
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I'm glad I went into "Man of Steel" with fairly low expectations. The Richard Donner "Superman" is so deeply embedded into my psyche, I've pretty much accepted that there's never going to be another take on the character that will live up to it for me. The new version certainly didn't, but it didn't try to. Rather, it is exactly what Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder kept threatening it would be, a much darker, moodier, serious version that shows no trace of Superman's origin in comic books for wide-eyed young children. I found the movie mostly well made, very uneven, and overwhelmingly joyless, humorless, and honestly a little depressing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Iron Man 2 (2010) - Poor Jon Favreau. It feels like everything went downhill after the success of "Iron Man." I don't know how much of it was really his fault, since "Iron Man 2" seems to have been doomed fairly early on by a muddled script that spent too much time ting up for "The Avengers" and introducing new characters who weren't all that important to what was going on. Worst of all were the ineffectual villains. Between characters played by Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke, surely somebody should have been a credible threat to Tony Stark, right? Right?!
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It's always fascinating to see which initially ignored and panned films manage to endure the test of time to emerge as cult classics a few decades later. There are a heap of early 90s children's films that have become cult favorites, sparking a lot of recent discussion. Barely anyone remembers that "Hook," the 1991 Spielberg fantasy film, was met with mixed and downright hostile reviews. There hardly seems to be a Millennial out there who doesn't love it. Was "The Nightmare Before Christmas" too dark and scary for children, as the LA Time fretted back in 1993? Disney sure doesn't think so these days, with "Nightmare" merchandise now a ubiquitous presence at their stores and parks.

Usually I get why one of these old kids' films has become a perennial, but sometimes I don't. I watched "Hook" as a kid like everyone else, and while I love the score and a few standalone scenes, it's become all to clear to me over the years that the movie is a mess. But still, I can understand the appeal. It's a big budget spectacular, stuffed with action scenes and humor and kid-friendly thrills. It has endlessly repeatable one-liners, and Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman hamming it up with all they've got. The special effects still look pretty good, and the loud, noisy, raucous atmosphere must have been irresistible, for little boys especially. When you're ten, you're not paying attention to things like shoddy plotting and bad characterization.

However, the cult status of another 90s kid film that has re-emerged recently has left me scratching my head. Apparently there's a whole generation that has grown up loving the Disney live-action Halloween film "Hocus Pocus," which came out twenty years ago to absolutely dismal reviews. It didn't last long in theaters, though it did make its modest budget back. I remember the movie pretty well, because it was used as convenient holiday time-filler for much of the 90s, particularly on the Disney-owned networks. It also shared a couple of actors - Omri Katz and Jason Marsden - with "Eerie, Indiana," which I was a big fan of. I must have been too old when I watched "Hocus Pocus" for it to get a grip on my affections, because I remember it as a remarkably campy, silly, and all too often awkward children's movie that felt like it had been slapped together out of spare parts.

The witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are clearly the best the movie has to offer, playing a trio of goofy baddies with magnificent costumes, but they're so cartoonish that they never come across as a real threat. Everything is against them in the movie, from the insanely specific circumstances required for their resurrection to their unfamiliarity with the modern world. I know that they're supposed to be comedic figures, keeping it light for the littlest kids and amusing for the grown-ups, but the plot needs them to be at least a little scary by the third act. But good grief, the CGI "Casper" two years later was more intimidating.

The stuff with the teenagers running around, trying to stop them? Pretty dire. The actors aren't bad, but the characters are sketchy and the scenarios are bland. The teen romance was especially bad, and I cringed through a lot of the tin-ear dialogue about virgins and Vinessa Shaw's yabbos. For a movie meant to be safe for the very smallest tots, it's got some weirdly sexual elements in it that make me suspect that "Hocus Pocus" was initially a very different movie. Perhaps a musical of some sort, as this is the only movie directed by Disney regular Kenny Ortega, who made his name as a choreographer, that is not a musical.

I do like some bits and pieces of the movie. The talking cat is great. Doug Jones as a zombie is great. The best sequence is almost certainly when Bette Midler gets to sing "I'll Put a Spell On You," and vamp as only Bette Midler can. But those things aside, I can't work out what it is kids saw in this movie that stuck with them. "Hocus Pocus" looks like every other generic kids' Halloween movie from the same time. The effects are mediocre. The story isn't all that exciting. Were the Sanderson sisters really all that appealing to kids?

Familiarity is the culprit, I suspect. As I previously mentioned, "Hocus Pocus" has been a staple of Disney Halloween programming for years. Kids saw this movie over and over and over, until it became something nostalgic and fondly remembered, the same way that I got hooked on terrible old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from the '80s. Young kids really have no sense of whether a movie is good or bad, but they respond well to bright colors and exaggerated characters, which "Hocus Pocus" has plenty of.

So, I suspect the same thing might have happened with any number of other movies if Disney gave them the same treatment. The far superior "The Witches," perhaps, or "The Halloween Tree." But Disney had the rights to "Hocus Pocus," so they played "Hocus Pocus," and twenty years later it's a little scary how many twenty-somethings can quote it verbatim.

Ultimately it's all about distribution.
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We're five episodes into Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and now the grousers have taken center stage. Viewers are getting impatient with the show, unhappy with the characters, unhappy with the tone, and unhappy with the incremental pace of the plot and character development. The ratings reflect this, still decent, but sinking from the premiere, which was one of the highest rated debuts ABC had in years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Originals" is going to turn into one big soap opera inevitably, but its genre flourishes are much more fun and there is an intriguing universe supporting the works. I especially enjoy the use of flashbacks, which reminds me of how "Highlander" used to do them. However, the downside is that I'm a little wary of watching further before I figure out what I missed of the Mikaelsons' story from multiple seasons of the "Vampire Diaries."
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I'm still working up to that "Dads" rant, so let's tackle the new FOX supernatural show "Sleepy Hollow" first. A few spoilers for the pilot ahead.

Following on the unlikely success of high-concept shows like "Grimm," FOX has put together its own fantasy procedural with familiar genre names Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Len Wiseman. They've "reimagined" "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," so now Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a Revolutionary spy and soldier for George Washington, and his lovely wife Katrina (Katia Winter) is a nurse. After falling in battle, Crane is awoken from the grave after 250 years, to modern-day upstate New York to continue his fight with the also resurrected Headless Horseman, who Crane previously beheaded. Joining him is a black female police lieutenant, Abbie Mills (Nicole Behari), trying to solve a series of recent murders.

Torrents of exposition are shoehorned into the pilot to explain the increasingly silly scenario that the Headless Horseman is really one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelations, and the little town of Sleepy Hollow is the epicenter of a centuries-long battle for the fate of humanity between the forces of light and dark. Opposing covens of witches are quickly mentioned, who I'm sure we'll be spending more time getting to know in the weeks to come. Mills also had an encounter with a dark spirit when she was a child, giving her a personal connection to these events. However, the bulk of the pilot focuses on maneuvering Crane and Mills into their unlikely long-term partnership against the things that go bump in the night.

The first half of the hour is a lot of fun, introducing Mison's charming fish-out-of-water Crane, who everyone thinks must be crazy. However, he's so lucid and intelligent, and self-possessed, it's easy to be won over by him. So it's believable that Mills would eventually come around and start taking his ridiculous explanations seriously. Mison has all the fun stuff with Ichabod Crane, mistaking Mills for an emancipated slave and making observations about Starbucks, but Behari's performance is the vital one. She's provides a strong grounding element amidst all the fantastic silliness, a real person we can are about. Without her, the show wouldn't work. Katia Winter doesn't get to do much but look winsome in a low cut dress, and the only other regular so far is Orlando Jones as Mills' superior, Captain Frank Irving, a typical hard case.

There's a lot of action in the pilot, mostly in the second half, but it's so cartoonish and low-stakes that it's not much fun to watch. The Horseman bloodlessly chops guest stars' heads off, gravity-defying magic makes objects whiz through the air, and there are some pretty tame horrorshow jump scares. What's the point of broadswords and Biblical references if the violence isn't allowed to get properly medieval? We get a lot of the usual B-movie horror elements, but "Sleepy Hollow" is no "Hannibal," and isn't really interested in being frightening or pushing at network content limits. The show's attitude is far too slick for that, clearly more interested in coolness than creeps. In other words, it's exactly what you would expect from the man who made the "Underworld" movies.

Fortunately the writing's not bad, despite the ludicrous plotting. The main characters are established well, the banter's cute, Crane's commentary on the modern world is fun, and the humor is all-around more effective than any of the action or the thrills. The quips are just clever enough to pass muster, though Ichabod Crane handles the culture shock a little too well. I found the treatment of the existing "Sleepy Hollow" characters pretty terrible - wasn't Ichabod Crane supposed to be a coward? And they couldn't have worked in Brom Bones somehow? The series seems to be based on the 1999 Tim Burton "Sleepy Hollow" movie more than the original Washington Irving story, and many period details have clearly been fudged. Then again, I doubt Revolutionary War Era America is going to play much of a role in future episodes anyway.

I'm curious as to what a regular episode of the show is going to look like - the "Sleepy Hollow" pilot was full of expensive stunts they're surely not going to be able to pull off every week, and that Headless Horseman is going to stop being effective pretty quick if overused. The pilot was entertaining enough for what it was, but it's not sustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if this metamorphoses into a much smaller scale light mystery show, sort of a super campy "X-Files" lite. Considering all the talk about witches, we'll probably see "Sleepy Hollow" treading some of the same thematic ground as FX's upcoming "American Horror Story: Coven" this year. That could be fun week to week, but we'll have to see how it develops.

Happy watching.
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Today I'm writing about two completely different spinoffs that have just been announced, and two makes a trend, so there's my excuse to lump them together. The first, which has been all over the news, is that the "Breaking Bad" spinoff about shady lawyer Saul Goodman is officially a go at AMC. "Better Call Saul" is reportedly going to be a prequel series, though the extent of the involvement of the core creative talent of "Breaking Bad" is not yet clear. The second is potentially bigger. Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling are returning to the "Harry Potter" universe with an adaptation of Rowling's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."

Spinoffs are tricky things. They're not inherently problematic, but there have been lots of bad ones over the years. It's hard to say at this point if either of these new spinoffs will be successful, though I think both have a relatively good shot. Television shows that spin off a minor character tend to do better than direct sequel series. The most successful spinoff in recent years has been "Frasier," which followed the erudite bar patron we first met on "Cheers." There has to be a significant degree of separation between one show and the next, and "Frasier" worked so because it put the main character in an entirely new context that stood on its own. There were a few crossovers over the years, but none of them making much impact on the show. Compare this to "Angel," which had a lot of difficulty establishing itself separate from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" until the later seasons. Many of the most interesting bits of these early years were crossover stories.

"Better Call Saul" looks promising because it has the potential to expand the little world of Saul's law office in some different directions. Walter White is only one of his many clients, as the show has alluded to, and Saul didn't become a shady lawyer overnight. "Better Call Saul" will likely be another dramedy, but there's enough flexibility with the premise that it could conceivably be a straight comedy. I'm a little wary of them going the prequel route, because Bob Odenkirk isn't getting any younger and it creates a limitation on where the series can go, but then it also significantly reduces the ties to "Breaking Bad." Walt and Jesse wouldn't be able to make appearances in any significant way, though others like Mike and Gus might. We'd also be able to get into Saul's personal life - all those ex-wives and secretaries would finally get names. I expect we'll be getting a better picture once "Breaking Bad" ends and we find out if Saul survives the series or not.

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" will almost certainly attract a lot of attention because J.K. Rowling is involved, and the original book is part of the canon "Harry Potter" universe. However, this project strikes me as a little riskier. The "Fantastic Beasts" book is only 42 pages long, intended to be a recreation of a textbook on magical creatures commonly used by the students at Hogwarts. The film will follow the adventures of its author, Newt Scamander, as he travels the world having encounters with the fantastic beasts. It'll be set about seventy years prior to the events of "Harry Potter." I imagine the first film would do very well, as Rowling herself has agreed to write the script and it would benefit from the Potter series' sterling reputation. However, Warner Bros. very clearly wants another franchise, and that's where things get tricky.

One of the elements that made "Harry Potter" so successful was that it was finite. It built up to a big finale and then stopped. Warners, who made so much money from the eight-film franchise, has been trying to figure out a way to keep capitalizing on its success ever since. "Fantastic Beasts" is their answer. Getting Rowling to script the first movie cements their credibility, and then they can take subsequent installments wherever they want. However, there's a lot of risk here. There's not much by way of a pre-existing story since the book was really just ancillary material for the Potter series. This will be Rowling's first stab at screenwriting, and there's no guarantee that she's suited to it. We've seen a lot of "Potter" clones come and go over the years. Also, an open-ended franchise will lose momentum a lot quicker.

The idea of these two spinoffs holds a lot of promise, but we'll have to wait and see what the execution looks like. I can easily imagine a worst case scenario where "Better Call Saul" comes out too wacky or "Fantastic Beasts" turns out to be another generic CGI action-fest. But with the right people involved, maybe Saul Goodman could be the next Frasier Crane and Newt Scamander could be the next Harry Potter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Storyteller - Jim Henson's 1980s fantasy anthology is often listed as a miniseries, but it sure looked like a continuing series to me. Each of the nine episodes was scripted by Anthony Minghella, based on European folk stories and fairy tales. Guest stars included many familiar faces like Sean Bean and Miranda Richardson, but the real star was the Storyteller himself, played by John Hurt, and backed by the wizardry of eye-catching special effects and Henson Creature Shop puppet creations. To this day I've never seen anything else quite like it.
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