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Spoilers ahead, but you knew that by now, right?

After three episodes of escalating tensions, capped off by that cliffhanger with Jesse and the gas can last week, "Rabid Dog" cooled things down a little. Sure, tensions are still running high, but this week was all about establishing where all the pieces are on the chess board are, and coming to a new status quo. The machinations of the writers are more visible, and the story briefly resembles a more conventional procedural, capped off by a great little outdoor set piece that shows off more of picturesque Albuquerque.

The first half of the hour features Walt scrambling to regain his footing in a crisis, his least Heisenbergian appearance in a while. The lies are bumbling, and they don't work. Junior assumes he's lying to cover up symptoms of the lung cancer, and an increasingly perceptive Skyler eventually gets the truth out of him. And then she demonstrates exactly how far she's broken bad – demanding that Walt go live up to his "I am the danger" pronouncement, and embrace the use of euphemisms to deal with Jesse. Though these scenes aren't nearly as showy and complicated as the last half of the hour, they're fantastic. The conversation between Walt and Junior by that ominously meth-blue hotel swimming pool made me wish the powers-that-be had given R.J. Mitte more to do before now.

Last week was all about how Jesse finally broke free of any remaining loyalty to Walter White, but this episode made clear the extent that he's still under his former partner's power. Teaming up with Hank was an expected outcome that previous episodes had set up pretty well, but Jesse has no illusions about what the DEA is capable of. After sleeping off the rage and coming face to face with Agent Gomez and a camcorder, he immediately starts doubting their plans. He knows they have no evidence and no case, and he's not keen on serving a new master when he's still trying to escape the previous one. Moreover, Hank clearly doesn't have his best interests at heart, perfectly willing to let Walt kill Jesse if it gets him the evidence he needs. Fortunately Jesse shows he's smart and paranoid enough to slip out of one of Heisenberg's traps – even if it wasn't real.

As for Walt, this is the second time Saul has suggested getting rid of someone Walt considers family and the second time that Walt has resisted. His insistence on talk over action looks increasingly foolish as events unfold. And while Jesse is terrified of reprisal for pouring gasoline all over the White's living room, Hank makes the convincing case for Walt still harboring some kind of feeling of responsibility for Jesse. Even if Hank doesn't believe it, and is just trying to get Jesse to do what he wants, Walt's actions suggest that this reasoning is correct – up until he makes that fateful call to Todd. Jesse finally poses too much of a threat to be protected, in Walt's eyes, the most significant development of the hour. Sure, Jesse cluing in Hank and Gomie keeps them in the game, but he's not really on their side. Jesse's still out for his own revenge.

The second half of the episode being told entirely from Jesse's POV perhaps signals a shift in the narrative from Walt to Walt and Jesse permanently. We now have two protagonists that are in opposition to each other, who are equally compelling. As far along as Hank has come, you really couldn't call him the equal of Walt in any sense. Jesse, however, has suddenly taken charge of his own destiny and seems to be a couple of steps ahead for once. He has the compelling history and the ties to Walt that could make him the final, and most challenging adversary Walter White has faced yet. I assumed Hank would be the last big bad of the series, but considering how far Walt has fallen, it makes sense that we've come all the way around to Jesse, the last real good guy, being the last obstacle.

Finally I want to talk about that little interlude with Marie and her therapist. Her fixation on poisons and deteriorating mental state seem to suggest that she's about to do something drastic. Or maybe she's supposed to serve as a basis of comparison to those around her – she's thinking about poisoning people, but unlike Walt she wouldn't actually go through with it. Well, for now anyway. That awkward scene where she and Jesse are on opposite ends of the hallways shows how far apart she still is from that world. I wonder if in future weeks she might start edging a little closer.

And Badger's a "Babylon 5" fan! Please let there be more fanfiction ahead.
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Some spoilers ahead.

I wasn't happy when I first saw the opening credits for the second season of "Veronica Mars." Instead of Meg (Alona Tal) or Mac (Tina Majorino) joining the cast, instead we got expanded roles for the season one background players, the Casablancas brothers, Dick (Ryan Hansen) and Cassidy, nicknamed "Beaver" (Kyle Gallner). Plus, there was Jackie (Tessa Thompson), the new African-American student who was clearly intended to be a new minority gal-pal for Veronica and a love interest for Wallace. Fortunately, Meg and Mac still had pretty big supporting roles in this season, and the new featured characters all ended up being developed pretty well.

For much of year two, it felt like "Veronica Mars" was trying to transition into becoming something else, a show that would be more sustainable over the long run, maybe. I want to emphasize how different the first and second seasons are from each other, in ways that aren't immediately apparent. The multiple flashbacks and dream sequences, which were a big part of the DNA of the early episodes, are almost entirely gone in season two. So is most of Veronica's angst about her past - Lianne and Lily are barely mentioned this year, and the Kanes' influence is hardly felt on the new storylines at all. Veronica is no longer a social pariah, and is actively trying to put that part of her life behind her, though she still chafes at the divide between the rich and poor in Neptune. If there was anything that the writers really bungled about this year is that they set up this great tension between the 09ers and the 99% at the beginning of the season, and then absolutely nothing came of it.

No, the big mystery that occupies Veronica Mars' time during her senior year is finding out who is responsible for causing a fatal bus crash that killed several of her classmates, and that may have been targeting her as well. There's a big list of suspects, including Woody Goodman (Steve Guttenberg), the local businessman who wants to become Neptune's mayor, Dick and Beaver's golddigger stepmother Kendall (Charisma Carpenter), Weevil and other members of the PCH biker gang, and the local Irish mob family, the Fitzpatricks, who have beef with them. There's some time spent examining the dysfunctions of the Casablancas family, but nothing nearly as juicy as all the drama with the Kane and Echolls clans in the first season, or as thematically interesting. Year two of "Veronica Mars" is much more sprawling, with fewer obvious connections between Veronica and her big case. Sure, we get some nice twists, but they're more convoluted, and feel even more like contrived soap opera fodder than the first time around. Teen pregnancy! Child abuse! Mad bombers! Logan sleeping with anything that moves! It would be deplorable if it weren't all so much fun.

And boy is "Veronica Mars" fun. It's very easy to nitpick this season's weaknesses, to talk about the disappearing and reappearing characters, poorly developed ideas, messy logic, and the sad neglect of some of the most important relationships and concepts from the previous year. The execution problems are obvious. However, that doesn't take away from the show still being consistently well-written, inventive, and able to spring some great surprises when it counts. I liked that the characters have more room to grow, now that they're free of the constraints of that incredibly plot-driven first season. You can see this particularly in Wallace, Veronica, and Mac, who have some of their best moments just dealing with average teenager problems instead of their fancy detective shenanigans. As much as I appreciate Veronica being so smart and tricky, and always having the perfect comeback, sometimes she's a little too good at being the omnipotent girl sleuth. This season, I didn't have that problem with her at all.

While it held my attention, the big mystery wasn't as satisfying, because the stakes weren't as high and our main characters didn't feel like they were being seriously affected by the mess this time. I think most of the story issues came down to trying to do too much, and not putting the right amount of narrative emphasis in the right places. Boy, could we have used another episode about Woody, or some more time with the Fitzpatricks to flesh them out, or a better look at what was going on in the Casablancas household. While I like that the writers kept a lot of possibilities open for the ultimate Big Bad, they ended up with a lot of extra story threads that were just too underdeveloped for me to care much about. For every payoff that did work, like the identity of our mad bomber, there was another that didn't.

Still, I got a lot out of this season, and I was happy with many of the choices that the show's creators made. I know the third season is supposed to be another step down, but so far "Veronica Mars" is going strong enough that I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and keep going. After all, from what I've seen so far, mediocre "Veronica Mars" still beats most shows on their best days.
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I can't believe this. I thought I was being smart waiting for the "Ender's Game" trailer to debut before I wrote up my latest trailer post. But now I'm behind again, because we've had a flood of other major trailers released since. Usually I would space these trailer posts much further apart, but screw it. I want to talk about some of these now, especially since there are a couple of awards contenders in the mix. And I'll toss in a few for the upcoming summer indie pictures I left out previously. Here we go. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only God Forgives - This trailer debuted a while ago, but it definitely deserves a mention. It's saying one thing loud and clear: if you liked Ryan Gosling and Nicholas Winding Refn's last movie, "Drive," you're probably going to like this one too. Lots of atmosphere, lots of violence, and a welcome appearance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who we don't see enough of anymore. Apparently the plot involves the murky world of organized crime and boxing matches in Thailand, but all you really need to know is that it's a movie that is just oozing cool.
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Spoilers for the first season of "Veronica Mars."

I wonder how much of the Lily Kane murder story was plotted out from the beginning. I can certainly see parts of it being very carefully set up from the start, particularly all the misdirection having to do with Lianne Mars and the Kane family. However, who the actual killer turned out to be worked particularly well, because it was the culmination of what looked like just another side story at the start of the season. I wouldn't be surprised if the powers that be noticed that Jason Dohring was acting circles around Teddy Dunn, and beefed up his role in the show to give him more screentime. And after bringing Harry Hamlin in as Logan's dad, and watching him at work, they picked their killer.

I knew the Veronica-Logan-Duncan love triangle was coming. That was pretty much all I knew about "Veronica Mars" from the outset. To the show's credit, they handled it a lot better than I've seen other shows handle romantic relationships involving teenagers. Logan never stopped having a huge chip on his shoulder and a always having lot to apologize for. The sexual content was consistently been handled maturely, with a remarkable lack of handwringing. However, as Logan and Veronica got cuddlier, it felt like I was watching a different, soapier show. Thank goodness the writers figured out how to tie the state of the romantic relationships to the rape and murder cases, and the big climax re-emphasized that the most important guy in Veronica's life is her father.

And what a finale! This is one of the best season enders that I've ever seen. All three of Veronica's big ongoing mysteries appear to be fully resolved, though there's clearly still a lot of fallout to be sorted through. The one development that caught me off guard was Veronica kicking her mother out in order to preserve Keith's happiness, a nice flip of Keith's decision to give up his relationship with the school counselor earlier in the season. And the show went all out on the action scenes, with Veronica being targeted by a psycho Aaron Echolls, a car crash, a lengthy and bloody brawl between Keith and Aaron, and finally Keith getting himself set on fire to rescue Veronica. I'm so glad the murderer wasn't Jake Kane, because Kyle Secor freaking out at the end there was an unintentionally funny moment in a great hour. "Veronica Mars" could have ended with this finale and I'd have been happy.

But I don't just want to talk about the ending of the season. "Veronica Mars" kept up a great level of quality throughout the year. Okay, some of the cases were a little more iffy than others, and Veronica's moral compass often seemed severely off-kilter, but the writers were very self-aware about it. Veronica always learned the truth, but didn't always get justice for the wronged, and Neptune remains controlled by the elites and rife with corruption. And some of Veronica's less savory tactics, like planting bugs in sensitive places, backfired on her. When she grew too reliant on Wallace's access to student files and other favors, he called her out on it. And I loved that the status quo kept changing throughout the season - Veronica still has a bad reputation, but she became the go-to girl for solving mysteries, and even Principal Clemmons (Duane Daniels) went to her for help eventually.

My hopes for more good female regulars didn't really pan out, though we got some good recurring ones. There was Meg (Alona Tal), the good girl from the purity test episode who becomes Duncan's girlfriend, and Mac (Tina Majorino), the computer geek with an interesting family history. Sydney Poitier disappeared from the opening credits pretty quickly though. The show is not doing too well with the minority characters, but they're certainly trying. You can tell that the writers were having a hard time keeping Wallace and Weevil in the picture, which is probably why Weevil ended up on the suspects list for the Lily Kane murder, and Wallace's mother Alicia (Erica Gimpel) got paired up with Keith. And the attempt to shoehorn a black girlfriend into Veronica and Lily's past for all of one episode, who is never mentioned again, was pretty painful.

Still, I'm really enjoying the show. I think what I appreciate about it ultimately is its smarts and its humor. I like that there are minor characters named Dick and Beaver. I like that the pop culture references skew a little bit older - "Grease," "Single White Female," and even "National Velvet." I like that it not only acknowledges the divide between the haves and the have-nots, but has made it a central feature of the "Veronica Mars" universe. I like that Veronica has no qualms about using gossip, blackmail, and the darker forces of the internet, because Neptune is not a nice place, and playing by the rules won't get you very far. This isn't exactly Rian Johnson's "Brick," but as high school film noir, it gets refreshingly dark and cynical when it needs to.

And most of all, I like Veronica Mars, the kind of know-it-all, non-conformist, cute-as-a-button badass who won't take things lying down, and maybe still has a chance with a cute guy in the end. I like Kristen Bell as Veronica, and how she carries the show so easily. I like how she can be smug, vindictive, selfish, self-righteous, and completely wrong, and we still want to root for her.

Onward to Year Two.
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Anyone out there keeping up with "Hannibal"?

You may have heard that NBC decided that after the events of Newtown and the Boston bombings last week, that they were going to pull the fourth episode of "Hannibal," titled "Œuf," (French for "egg") because of potentially sensitive subject matter involving young children and violence. The parts of the episode that were important to ongoing storylines have instead been edited down into a series of webisodes that are being released online. However, the full episode will air unedited outside of the United States and Canada, and will probably be released on home media sometime in the future.

First things first. Good for NBC for doing the responsible thing and exercising some caution and restraint. And yet, on some level I find myself perturbed by this decision. I understand why you wouldn't want people stumbling across an episode like this on broadcast television. Even in the 10 PM hour with special warning screens and the harshest possible TV ratings slapped on it, there are certain concepts and ideas that really are a little too much to let loose on the general public. "Hannibal" has pushed the envelope a few times already, and it's no surprise that the network wants to tread more carefully. Cable probably could have gotten away with it. Premium cable wouldn't even have blinked. However, "Hannibal" is airing on NBC, and it's a national broadcast network where there are much more stringent content rules applied because it's so much more accessible.

However, I really want to see this episode in its entirety. I really, really want to see it. NBC went ahead and aired the promo for "Œuf" at the end of last week's episode, and it teased some of the most arresting imagery in the show since the pilot episode, including one shot of a crime scene that appears to be directly referencing some of the more horrific visuals from "Silence of the Lambs." Having sat through more than my share of horror movies, I know exactly what I'm getting myself into and I have no concerns that the content is going to be too much for me. The existence of the webisodes alleviate some of my concerns about missing important continuity before the next episode airs, but I'd still love to get my hands on the full episode.

If you tell me I can't watch something, my inner five-year-old just wants to see it more. Moreover, I can't help but feel like I'm being penalized for someone else's sensitivities, even though I certainly understand and respect those sensitivities. It's like that time in one of my high school English class where we weren't allowed to finish watching the Steve Martin comedy "Roxanne" (we were reading "Cyrano de Bergerac") because somebody anonymously complained to the teacher that the crude humor was too much for them. I understood the concern, but I still wanted to watch the movie. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't know I was missing out, and if I weren't already anticipating the episode. Unfortunately I do and I am, so I can't help stewing about it.

If some of the comments I've been seeing around the internet are any indication, I'm not alone in this. There are a lot of people who are taking an interest. So I'm very surprised that NBC isn't offering the full episode on the internet in any form to American viewers. I'd gladly pay my three bucks for a digital download from Amazon or iTunes. I usually watch "Hannibal" online anyway, because Thursdays nights are so crowded. NBC wouldn't have to worry so much about propriety, because requiring payment would keep the wrong people from stumbling across the episode accidentally, and I wouldn't be surprised if NBC didn't make a few extra bucks from the increased interest that pulling "Œuf" has drummed up in the last week.

Alas, so far no dice. It's probably only a matter of time before it shows up somewhere though. Networks have pulled plenty of television episodes before in plenty of different contexts, and they've always come back eventually. I remember the "X-Files" episode "Home," which had graphic content and a really disturbing incest angle, got pulled from reruns for a couple of years after its first broadcast, and then came back with ads trumpeting its notoriety. And do you recall the third season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" getting delayed for two months because of the Columbine shootings?

So, this is really only a matter of inconvenience for "Hannibal" fans and I just have to have a little patience. Besides there's plenty to look forward to - tonight's episode will be the first of several directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, best known for his work with Guillermo Del Toro. And it also means we're one week closer to the season's endgame too.
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Minor spoilers ahead.

It takes a few episodes for a season of "The Wire" to settle in, introduce its new characters, and establish what the new status quo is going to be. So the first part of Season Four is mostly scene setting. An election pitting Carcetti against Mayor Royce upends the Major Crime Unit, sending Greggs and Freamon to Homicide, and leaving Herc to deal with a hostile new commander without much backup. McNulty and Carver are still in the Western. With the Barksdale crew out of the picture, a younger, meaner operator named Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) has moved in, with his enforcers Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson). As for the two police who found themselves disgraced and defeated at the end of Season Three, Pryzbylewski and Colvin, they both find their way through different channels to Edward J. Tilghman Middle School. Prez is starting a new career as a math teacher, and Colvin is recruited to help spearhead an alternative program for high-risk kids.

And that brings us to the real main characters of this season, eighth graders Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), Randy (Maestro Harrell), Mike (Tristan Wilds), and Namond (Julito McCullum). The four are friends, and assigned to Prez's homeroom and math class together. They're good kids more or less, but in danger of being lost to the street, and at a crucial age of transition. Namond is the son of Avon Barksdale's associate Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson), and is expected to follow in his footsteps. Dukie and Mike have terrible home lives that push them toward bad choices. Randy might be too smart for his own good. There are well-meaning adults in their lives who try to keep an eye out for them, including Prez, Colvin, Cutty Wise, and even Carver. However, on the flip side, the boys have to contend with an overstressed, test-obsessed school system, failing social safety nets, and the inescapable drug culture. This season of "The Wire" is devoted to how the system perpetuates itself, showing us how a group of ordinary school kids could become the next Omar, Bubbles, and Avon Barksdale.

Having heard so much about how Season Four tackles the Baltimore school system, I was expecting the show would spend more time there. However, it's only one story out of many. Most of the early part of the season is dominated by the election and politics. The police stay busy hunting Marlo Stanfield, and this year's big case is really more of a non-case. The police suspect Marlo's takeover of the Western District has been violent, but nobody can find the bodies. This season more than any of the others feels sprawling and overstuffed. Characters like McNulty and Omar hardly seem to have a reason to appear at all, but they do. Some, like Daniels and Greggs, are perhaps being set up for bigger developments down the road, but don't see much of the action this year. And yet, this season contains some real gems, and builds and builds to the most powerful climax the show has had yet. We get to see characters like Herc, Carver, Prez, and Bubbles wrestling with failure and responsibility. We get to Carcetti discover the awful price of success. The show's writing has never been better, the social criticism never sharper, nor the drama more compelling.

Many have sung the praises of this season of "The Wire," pointing to the way it layers all these different narratives together, and the way that it shifted gears to address a system as complicated as education. What gets to me is that we are four seasons in, and the writers can pull out Dukie, Mike, Randy, and Namond, and make it feel like they were the main characters all along. Or take a former jerkass like Prez and make him one of the most sympathetic good guys on the show. Or seriously question the moral compass and competence of Herc. It's one thing to show the larger failings of the system, but "The Wire" never forgets that the system is made up of individuals, and it's the smaller, personal failings of characters we've gotten to know and trust, that hit so hard. And the little moments of heroism, undertaken in spite of their apparent futility, that hit even harder.

This is the darkest season of "The Wire" by far, but also the one that offers the most hope. In stepping off the street, looking at its boundaries and how the kids cross over, "The Wire" shows us there are ways out. It doesn't just portray the problems, but potential solutions, paths not taken, and hard choices not made. It's what makes the season such a potent tragedy, and gives it so much impact.

I can't wait to see how this all wraps up in Season Five. Onwards.
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After this post, I'll be writing about "The Wire" with posts divided up by seasons, but I thought it would be good to start out with an introductory entry on the first five episodes. HBO's "The Wire" is one of the most acclaimed television series ever made, though it never received much until the end of its five-year run. As someone who has watched a lot of police procedurals over the years, I think it's easier to talk about what "The Wire" isn't. It's not the show that sticks to the usual formula of the heroic cops solving the case of the week, and moving on to something entirely different in each episode. It's not the show that paints the cops as the good guys and the drug dealers and gang members as the baddies. And it's definitely not the show that presents an idealized version of how law enforcement and judicial systems are meant to function.

The first season of "The Wire" is focused on an investigation of a string of murders linked to Baltimore drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The investigation is triggered by Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who presents his concerns about the handling of several of the murders to Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety), who in turn leans on the Baltimore Police Department. McNulty and Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), under the command of Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), lead the resulting investigation. They're hampered at every turn by department politics, lack of resources, and institutional dysfunction. Because the investigation is largely intended as a face-saving measure, and has little support from the department, the team gets stuck with several officers who are apathetic or just incompetent.

"The Wire" also tells the story of the investigation from the POV of Avon Barksdale's nephew D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) and his crew, who handle some of the most visible drug-dealing operations. D'Angelo reports to Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), Avon's second-in-command. It's through the interactions between the two, and various scenes of D'Angelo's managing his turf, that we learn that these are intelligent, capable individuals who are just as compelling as the police officers working to bring them down. Other characters in the mix include Bubbles (Andre Royo), an addict who works with Detective Greggs as an informant, and the famous Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), who shows up in the third episode to rob D'Angelo's crew, and is currently something of a neutral third party. Perhaps he won't be for long.

I can't stress enough how rare it is to see a show as realistic in its approach as "The Wire." The cast is predominantly African-American. The primary settings are run-down neighborhoods, stricken with poverty. The goal of the investigation is not identifying the perpetrators or solving a mystery, but finding enough evidence to build a case that will stick, in an environment where witnesses are easily intimidated and the majority of police officers don't want to stick their necks out. McNulty, with his strong morals and habit of speaking out, is often treated by those around him as a more problematic figure than the show's dirty cops, and it seems like everyone is constantly advising him to keep his mouth shut. The use of "the wire" of the show's title requires a mountain of paperwork and proof that the police have exhausted all other options. The storyline is complicated, but compelling and insightful. All the characters are painted in shades of gray.

The moment that sold me on "The Wire" happens at the end of the second episode. Three officers who have been assigned to the investigation, including trigger-happy "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who Lt. Daniels has spent a good chunk of the hour trying to get rid of, are involved in a drunken, late night altercation in the neighborhood they're supposed to be surveilling. Prez puts a minor in the hospital, triggering a potential scandal. In a network police procedural like "Law & Order," Prez would be punished and never be heard from again so the show's regulars could start the next episode with a fresh slate. In a more serialized cable drama like " The Shield," Prez would stick around, but be labeled as an obvious bad guy, to be defeated or redeemed within the specific context of his police career. In "The Wire," Prez is at the beginning of a very different character arc (which I know about thanks to a few spoilers).

Other individual scenes are just as impressive. McNulty and his partner Bunk Williams (Wendell Pierce), revisit an old crime scene in a great sequence where they piece together what happened in almost total silence, expect for the exchange of punctuating expletives. D'Angelo teaches his underlings how to play chess, relating each piece to a position in the drug operations. Bubbles provides advice to an undercover officer on how to look like a more convincing junkie. The character study elements are currently less pronounced, as the plot is being driven by the investigation, but from the moments we've gotten so far, I suspect they're going to become increasingly important as time goes on.

I'm getting very excited about where "The Wire" is going. Stay tuned.
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I've always liked UK actor Rufus Sewell, who has long been typecast as a villain in his film career, despite several excellent turns as a leading man. So it was nice to see him in the title role of the BBC detective show "Zen," which came and went fairly quickly back in January of 2011. Like the outwardly similar "Luther" and "Sherlock," its three episodes are feature-length, running about ninety minutes apiece. I'm afraid "Zen" doesn't match up to the highs of either of those shows, but then it's more consistent and succeeds in setting itself apart from other British crime dramas.

Aurelio Zen (Sewell), is a detective in Rome. Separated from his wife, he lives with his mother (Catherine Spaak), works too much, and contemplates a relationship with his boss's new assistant, the lovley Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Zen has a reputation for being both an outsider and a man of unusually strong morals, who does not engage in the sort of politicking and corruption that is endemic in his department, as exemplified by Zen's chief rival, Vincenzo Fabri (Ed Stoppard). However, he knows how to use the system of political favors and under-the-table dealings to his own advantage, including taking delicate assignments straight from a well-placed cabinet minister, Amadeo Colonna (Ben Miles). And like almost all hero detectives, Zen has a habit of bending the rules and ignoring direct orders when they would get in the way of seeing justice done.

I was not surprised at all to learn that the Aurelio Zen of Michael Dibdin's novels, which were the source material for "Zen," is introduced as being about a decade older than the one in the television series, is far more morally compromised, and is generally described as an anti-hero figure. The show abandons most of these shades of gray, giving us a version of the detective who is faced with few deep moral quandaries, and difficult decisions. Every episode seems to involve him putting his career on the line due to the shady machinations of higher authorities in the police force and the government, but Zen remains untouched by the corruption. Instead he's a terribly romantic ideal of a lone detective who values the truth over furthering his own interests, and despite the costs to his personal life, he bucks the system and always seems to come out on top in the end.

The series is set in Italy, and mostly populated by British actors without a trace of an Italian accent. The exception is Caterina Murino, playing Zen's primary love interest. Their hot-blooded, libido-driven romance sets the tone of the show, which is reminiscent of early James Bond as it plays up the intrigue and sexiness. Love affairs are open secrets, and practically every female character tries to seduce the reluctant Zen at some point. Throw in picturesque Italian locations and a dreamy, nostalgia-tinged score, and we're clearly dealing with a heavily exoticized version of Rome that doesn't really exist. Zen's cases all involve high-profile political victims in compromising situations, that require hushing up potential scandals, but there's no real social commentary or any sense that we're getting a candid look at Italian society. In fact, I spotted several things that an genuine Italian would probably cringe at.

But as an old fashioned detective fantasy, it's perfectly serviceable entertainment. The stories are nothing new or memorable, but the execution provides just enough kick to keep it interesting. The actors in particular are a major asset. Far from looking villainous, Rufus Sewell's Zen is immediately sympathetic and has an appealing underdog charm. Even when he's dressed to the nines, there' still something vaguely scruffy and down-to-earth about him. Caterina Murino gets a tricky character to play, so overtly sexual and sexualized that I wasn't sure if "Zen" took place in the past or if it was a matter of cultural differences, but she can certainly hold her own on the screen. And it took me a while to figure out where I had seen Ben Miles before, since his performance as Colonna is light years away from goofy Patrick from "Coupling" - in a good way.

"Zen" didn't last beyond its first season, but it makes for decent casual viewing, especially if you like crime procedurals. Even though I think the picture of the Italian police force it paints is highly suspect, it's nice seeing a depiction that doesn't incorporate any of the usual clichés and tries doing things a little differently. And I like to think that if the show had returned for more series, it might have gotten darker and more interesting the way that the original novels did. If you're impatiently awaiting the return of "Sherlock" and "Luther" like I am, "Zen" is no substitute, but it might help to tide you over.
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I've already reviewed a couple of the television pilots for the new network television fall season and you can expect reviews of a few more before the month is up. However, I'll be honest. There's not a lot this year that I see myself getting very excited about. I've been watching less and less network television in general since I cut the cord, and I find myself more interested in the return of shows like "Person of Interest" and "Community," and catching up on others that I've missed, than sorting through the latest crop of new hopefuls. However, there are a couple of titles that I'm keeping an eye on.

"666 Park Avenue" - ABC's newest supernatural series about a young couple who take up residence in a too-good-to-be-true apartment building that may be owned by agents of the devil. Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams will be headlining as the show's baddies. I'm hoping for more of a toothy fantasy anthology show here and less of a prime time soap, but my guess is that it's probably going to follow in the footsteps of their previous hit, "Once Upon a Time," which is a little of both. However, this one's in the 10PM hour, so it'll probably at least be a little darker and sexier.

"Last Resort" - One of the most interesting concepts of the year: a US nuclear submarine refuses to follow orders to fire on its intended target and is declared a rogue vessel. The crew set up base on a nearby island and declare themselves a sovereign nation until they can figure out who betrayed them. The cast is full of familiar names including Scott Speedman, Robert Patrick, Dichen Lachman, with Andrew Braugher as the captain of the boat. Even if the rest of the series is a wash, the pilot looks like it's going to be pretty spectacular. "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan is responsible for this one, which is a good sign.

"Arrow" - Warner Bros, having had no luck bringing the superhero Green Arrow to the big screen, will try him out on television in "Arrow." Oliver Queen, played by Stephen Amell, is a billionaire business man by day and a crime fighter by night. The good news is that the show's creators are toning down the superhero elements and going with something more down-to-earth. The bad news is that those creators are Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, who were behind the less than stellar "No Ordinary Family." The CW's genre shows can be very hit or miss, but I've always liked Green Arrow, so I want to give "Arrow" a chance.

"Elementary" - I've already reviewed the pilot over here. The concept is none too original, but the talent is right, the approach is sound, and there's every indication that this could be a solid performer for NBC. I like Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson, I like that they seem to be going with a platonic friendship angle for now, even though I doubt that's going to last if the show survives more than two seasons. Still, I see no reason why the popular culture doesn't have room for yet another "Sherlock Holmes" adaptation, especially one as self-assured as this.

"Vegas" - At first glance this 60s era cops and mobsters series seems to be a leftover from last year, which saw several similar period dramas try their luck at landing a network audience. However, "Vegas" has the benefit of veteran filmmakers James Mangold and Nicholas Pileggi in the mix, along with actors Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Jason O'Mara back for another round after "Terra Nova" and the American version of "Life on Mars." Maybe he'll have better luck in a supporting role, as Quaid will be taking the lead as the Nevada sheriff clashing with a newly transplanted Chicago mobster, played by Chiklis.

And finally we come to the comedies, which I can never tell anything about from their synopses and always take me a while to warm up to anyway . I make no promises as to which of these I'm actually going to watch and review, but on my radar are NBC's "Go On" with Matthew Perry and "The New Normal" from "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy. Over on ABC, "The Neighbors" looks like it's trying very hard to be "3rd Rock from the Sun," in reverse, and then there's the extremely timely "How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life)." Also, the "Will & Grace" creators are back with "Partners," which is all about the bromance between a gay guy and a straight guy who both find themselves in new relationships.

In addition, I've already said my piece about Revolution and The Mindy Project, neither of which I expect I'll be revisiting.
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Some quick thoughts on pilots for two new shows that will be premiering later this month, NBC's "Revolution" and CBS's "Elementary."

Let's deal with the bad news first. "Revolution," the new post-apocalyptic adventure show that takes place fifteen years after all electricity stops functioning, is this year's "Terra Nova." Created by Eric Kripke and produced by J.J. Abrams, it imagines society falling apart, and the survivors ruled over by an evil militia. Those who are lucky live in peaceful agrarian villages, like Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee), his teenage son Danny (Graham Rogers), and daughter Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) who is in her early twenties. The arrival of the villainous Captain Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) and his men one day leaves Ben dead, Danny captured, and Charlie on a dangerous road to Chicago to find her uncle Miles (Billy Burke).

The only two characters that are remotely interesting in the pilot are Aaron (Zak Orth), a former Google employee who serves as good-natured comic relief, and Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips), Ben's doctor girlfriend who invites herself along on the trip to find Miles. Have you noticed the female love interests are always doctors in shows like this? "Revolution" is one cliché after another. Charlie has a rebellious attitude and spouts a lot of ideals, but she's pretty useless. I think her pushy naïveté would have worked better if she was cast about a decade younger. Of course they give her a love interest, Nate (J.D. Pardo), who is temporarily on the wrong side. Miles drowns his sorrow in drink until Charlie shows up on his doorstep with a reason for him to reclaim his inner badass. I was looking forward to Giancarlo Esposito's involvement, but his evil Captain Neville is a few degrees too evil, and the real big bad is someone else. To top it all off, the premise of a future without electricity gets completely subverted when we find out that the whole point of the series is going to be to find a way to turn the electricity back on.

I think I've been spoiled by recent cable series with their high production values, because "Revolution" looks pretty lackluster. The pilot was directed by Jon Favreau, but the budget limitations are very obvious in spite of some flashy special effects and scenic destruction. And then there are the content limitations that come with being a network television production, which means "Revolution" never gets nearly as dark or intense as this kind of material really needs. After "The Walking Dead" and so many other apocalypse themed media properties lately, this one feels very derivative and underwhelming. It's certainly more competent and more promising than "Terra Nova." The later parts of the episode involving Graham Rogers were decent, probably they didn't come across like they were trying too hard to impress. However, "Revolution" is already telegraphing far too many familiar plot arcs that I have no interest in following.

"Elementary" is CBS's modern day version of "Sherlock Holmes" that is a completely different animal from "Sherlock," the BBC's modern day version of Sherlock Holmes. "Elementary" is a crime procedural, and the irony is that despite Holmes being the progenitor of so many crime solving eccentric detectives that appear in these shows, like Patrick Jane in "The Mentalist," and Dr. Lightman on "Lie to Me," "Elementary" feels derivative of them, rather than the other way around. The new Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonny Lee Miller, is a former consultant to Scotland Yard, currently residing in New York City after a stint in rehab. The performance is decent. Miller's borderline manic, often inconsiderate Sherlock Holmes is a little softer and more vulnerable than either the Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch takes, though it borrows bits from both.

The biggest departure is the show's other lead. Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon carrying some emotional scars who is hired by Holmes' unseen father to help with the transition from rehab back to normal life. However, this immediately sets up "Elementary" to follow in the footsteps of couple-based detective shows like "Bones" and "Castle." Fortunately, "Elementary" doesn't appear to be going in that direction. Though there's clearly going to be a lot of focus on the developing relationship between Holmes and Watson, it's not clear at all that this relationship is going to be a romantic one. Lucy Liu is a good match for Jonny Lee Miller because she underplays so much, but can sell the big moments, especially when she's dressing him down. I like the rapport that the two actors are building and I expect it to get even better as the show goes on.

Otherwise, I don't think there's anything particularly distinctive or interesting about "Elementary." The crimes and the crime solving are pretty typical of any other crime procedural on the air right now. The New York setting is so familiar, I wouldn't have batted an eye if they turned a corner and came across a few "Law & Order" alumni. Holmes piecing together elaborate fact patterns from tiny, disparate clues is something we've seen many, many times before and "Elementary" doesn't really offer any new twists on them the way that "Sherlock" did. However, familiarity doesn't necessarily mean tedium. The execution of the show is very good, and the actors are strong and add a lot to the mix. The show is not breaking any new ground, but it's clearly not trying to. If you're generally a fan of these kinds of slick hour-long whodunits, you'll probably be perfectly satisfied with "Elementary."
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Note that the title of this post is not the top ten superhero films. In fact, I'll be leaving out the superheroes almost entirely, in order to focus on some of the more oddball, lesser known movies people might not have realized were based on comics. I also leave out the movies based on newspaper comic strip characters like the "Charlie Brown" movies and "The Addams Family." Here goes nothing:

A History of Violence - I wasn't keen on the film until I heard that David Cronenberg was directing and Viggo Mortensen was playing the lead. Few people realized that this smart, dark thriller about a seemingly average family man with a shady past was based on a 1997 graphic novel. Critics praised it for its unusually realistic portrayal of sex and violence, including shots of the unpleasant aftermath of fight scenes and gun play. It's a very adult film, both in content and in approach, though reportedly considerably toned down from the original comic.

Akira - Many find the animated "Akira" film to be incoherent, and fans of the manga frequently suggest that if you want to know the real story of the famous Capsules motorcycle gang of Neo-Tokyo, you're better off reading Katsuhiro Otomo's multi-volume epic. I love the film version though, for being one of the creepiest, most visceral, most abundantly R-rated animated films ever made. The epic, horrific finale sequence alone makes this an anime classic. In fact, the film made such an impact and was so notorious in the 90s, for a lot of people it was anime, for good or bad.

American Splendor - Harvey Pekar candidly charted his unpredictable life and brushes with fame through a series of independent comics. The film adaptation, displaying a refreshing self-awareness and sense of fun, takes the unusual step of occasionally having the real Harvey and his wife Joyce appear in and comment on the dramatization of their lives, where Harvey is played by Paul Giamatti and Joyce by Hope Davis. The story, despite the fourth wall breaking, is about ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives, and it's wonderfully touching and strange.

Ghost World - I was tempted to include the Terry Zeigoff documentary about Robert Crumb on this list, but I'll have to settle for his adaptation of Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World," the tale of two cynical teenage girls. One of them, Enid (Thora Birch), becomes friends with a middle-aged man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), which has unexpected consequences for both them both. "Ghost World" has no ghosts, but it is one of the better films about teenage alienation. It is especially recommend for too-smart girls of a certain age, like me when I first saw it.

Men in Black - I love "Men in Black." I love its silliness, its bizarreness, and its refusal to treat the human race as anything special. Nope, we're just another species in a galaxy that is overflowing with strange alien life forms. Planet Earth is in danger of destruction with alarming regularity, so thank goodness for the Men in Black organization. And thank goodness for Will Smith in his prime, landing every joke as he played off the wonderfully deadpan Tommy Lee Jones. And director Barry Sonnenfeld, for bringing the the visual spectacle and the satirical atmosphere.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind - The beloved anime director Hayao Miyazaki also wrote and drew manga. His most substantial work was "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," which became a celebrated 1984 animated film. Based on the first two volumes, "Nausicaa" is a post-apocalyptic adventure story with thoughtful environmental and anti-war messages. It was made just prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli, but has almost all the hallmarks of their productions, including gorgeous traditional animation, a strong heroine, and memorable creatures.

Oldboy - Yep, this was based on a manga too, though only loosely. Park Chan-woo took the bare bones of the story and characters, and created a far more violent and shocking tale of a man imprisoned for years for reasons unknown, who is then unleashed upon the world. It is the centerpiece of Park's Vengeance Trilogy, has become a cult favorite. Hollywood has been trying to remake it for some time now without success. It's hard to imagine that any mainstream director would be able to keep the taboo plot twists and jarring violence of the original intact.

Persepolis - Marjane Sartrapi wrote the original "Persepolis" graphic novels based on her own experiences, growing up during the Iranian Revolution, and her rough adjustment to living in the West. So it was fitting that she directed the animated version herself, with Vincent Paronnaud. As a result, the film is extremely faithful to its comic source. "Persepolis" is in black and white, traditionally animated, and very frank about religious and sexual matters to the point where the film has become the subject of controversy and censorship in Muslim countries.

Road to Perdition - Originally a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, the film version directed by Sam Mendes is probably best remembered for its spectacular cinematography by Conrad Hall. Set during the Great Depression, it follows the journey of a father and his young son. The father, played by Tom Hanks, is an enforcer for the mob. His boss, played by Paul Newman in one of his final roles, has divided loyalties and perhaps cannot be trusted. "Road to Perdition" was a popular and critical success, but a few of the comic's fans were still upset about a slightly altered ending.

V for Vendetta - Yes, I'm well aware of the muddled ideology of the film that severely waters down the entire point of the Alan Moore graphic novel. But good grief, I enjoy the hell out of it nonetheless. I love the visuals, especially the wonderful use of the Guy Fawkes masks. I love so many individual sequences like Valerie's letter and the domino scene. I also think it has one of Natalie Portman's best performances, as Evey Hammond transforming from frightened victim to revolutionary. Yes, it's flawed and compromised, but it's also frequently an intriguing and entertaining piece of work.
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I wasn't familiar with the work of Jean Simmons when she was young. I remembered her from "Guys and Dolls" and "Spartacus," as a very elegant and dignified leading lady. I never knew that she used to have a softer face, a higher, girlish voice, and in the right lights you could mistake her for Audrey Hepburn. And this made her perfect for the role of Diane Tremayne, a deeply troubled young woman who might be capable of murder, but is so attractive that she draws in the suspicious hero, in spite of himself.Read more... )
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Roy Andersson's apocalypse comedy "Songs From the Second Floor" was one of the most unique and memorable Swedish films in recent memory, so I was curious about what he'd follow it up with. "You, the Living" came seven years later, and feels like more of the same, only without the apocalypse stuff. Here we have a collection of short, dark, comic scenes, about ordinary people living out their ordinary lives. Most of the characters are sad and miserable, seeking to escape their unhappiness. There is nothing as bleak and horrifying as the content of "Songs From the Second Floor." The most serious episode of violence is probably the fed-up barber (Kemal Sener) who ruins a rude man's haircut. There are some fanciful touches, including dream sequences and musical interludes, and the tone is altogether lighter, if not really much happier. Several characters are members of, or have some connection to a group of jazz musicians who call themselves the Louisiana Brass Band.Read more... )
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This review is going to be very spoiler-heavy, because one of the most notable things about "Angels With Dirty Faces" is the direction that the story takes, which simply wouldn't happen in a mainstream modern film. I'm going to discuss it in some depth, so fair warning, and here we go. "Angels With Dirty Faces" is a crime film about gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) who does all the despicable things that gangsters do, but makes good in the very end by sacrificing his reputation and acting like a coward at his execution. He does this for the noble purpose of ensuring that the local gang of street kids who idolize him won't be tempted to follow in his footsteps.

Present-day American culture idolizes the anti-hero and masculine pride far too much for this kind of ending to be acceptable today, and such blatant morality tales went out of fashion a long time ago. The story follows a tried and true formula. Rocky and his best friend Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) are a pair of mischievous kids together. One day they are caught trying to rob a railroad car. Jerry escapes, but Rocky is carted off to a string of reform schools and lock-ups, graduating to longer stints in prison as his criminal career progresses. After serving a three-year sentence for a theft committed with a shady lawyer named Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), Rocky goes home to the old neighborhood, and discovers that Jerry has grown up to be a respected local priest, and Laury (Ann Sheridan), the girl they used to tease, is now a beauty.

Rocky has matters to square with Frazier and his boss Keefer (George Bancroft), which leads to escalating episodes of violence. However, this is not your typical gangster picture. The film's biggest conflict is really over the souls of the gang of local boys, lead by Soapy (Billy Halop), who Father Jerry is trying to keep on the side of angels, steering them away from vice and temptation. Rocky befriends them, after they pick his pocket, and quickly becomes their hero and the only adult who can get them to do anything. It's easy to see why. Rocky Sullivan may be the most likeable gangster there ever was, a man who claims he doesn't have a heart, but is clearly loyal and generous and probably capable of being much more. He holds no grudge against Father Jerry, and genuinely cares about the kids. At the same time, he's not hesitant about giving Frazier and Keefer exactly what's coming to them.

The performance of James Cagney and the unusual ending are the only things I can summon up much praise for. The direction by Michael Curtiz has some nice flourishes, especially in the rousing action sequences, but it's nothing special. The performances by O'Brien and Sheridan barely register. The kids are funny and engaging, but barely differentiated enough to be real characters. They aren't even credited separately, but as the "Dead End Kids," for one of their previous projects together. It's sort of fun to see Bogart playing such a straight villain role in his pre-stardom days, but it only serves to highlight how simple and shallow the film is. If it weren't for Cagney's charismatic portrayal of Rocky Sullivan, I doubt anyone would remember the film today.

Then again, there is that ending, which sticks in the mind not only because of how well executed it is, but because of what it represents. There used to be so much more debate over the portrayal of crime and criminals on film, on their social impact. Here we have a film where the filmmakers clearly felt a sense of responsibility toward their audience. Rocky had to be punished for his crimes under the Hays Code one way or another, but using the punishment as a means of redemption was far more interesting and fulfilling than Rocky simply getting carted off to jail or dying on the final firefight. It also allowed Cagney to subvert the image of the "tough guy" he was always trying to get away from, which is probably why he took the role in the first place.

Can you imagine a modern crime picture where the gun-toting badass hero realizes that he's contributing to the degeneracy of the American youth, and willingly destroys his own image of cool in repentance? Can you imagine the equivalent of the Pat O’Brien character being part of that decision without all the baggage of the religious viewpoint, because being a priest was shorthand for being the dispenser of proper morality in a film? Can you remember the last time intentional disillusionment of young children was a plot point? For better or for worse, "Angels With Dirty Faces" could have only been made in the 1930s, when Hollywood was far more innocent, and the bad guys, even the good-hearted ones, always got it in the end.
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"Kafka" is a quasi-biopic that takes the interesting approach of combining aspects of its subject's real life with elements of his most famous stories. However, the film is not just an ode to Franz Kafka's enduring work, but also to other notable cinema that Kafka had a strong influence on. It's hard not to look at the breathtaking black and white shots of shadowy streets and anonymous, lurking figures, and not think of Orson Welles' "The Trial" and "The Third Man." And there's a definite nod to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" in some of the later, more fantastic set pieces.

We begin with Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) employed at a medical insurance firm in Prague. He spends his days in bureaucratic misery as a clerk, under the watchful gaze of his supervisor Burgel (Joel Grey), writing his stories on his own time as a hobby. One day his friend Eduard Rabin disappears, and Kafka becomes aware of a group of bombers, including the lovely Gabriela (Theresa Russell), who are fighting a mysterious, oppressive authority in the town, that may have been responsible for Eduard's disappearance. Their intentions are unknowns, but they headquartered in the inaccessible Castle where all of Kafka's records and reports are ultimately sent. After Gabriela disappears as well, Kafka investigates on his own, in spite of the warnings of the law, in the form of lnspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the bureaucracy, embodied by the Chief Clerk (Alec Guinness).

What could be more appropriate for a film about Kafka than a paranoid conspiracy thriller? "Kafka" is full of shadowy men in long coats and dark hats who are up to no good, chases through winding streets and underground tunnels, and secretive, elliptical conversations. The plot resembles "The Trial" and "The Castle" the most closely, though some of Kafka's other works are namechecked. "Kafka" is patterned off of the German expressionist films, with a good dose of more modern film noir, and often looks like it was made sometime in the 1940s or 50s. Shadows and silhouettes loom large in small spaces, and the deceptively delicate score summons an atmosphere of creeping dread. The cinematography alone had me transfixed for a good hour, marveling over the period details and the old fashioned lighting schemes.

The story is a muddled affair, and the actors occasionally seemed lost amidst the half-baked conspiracies. Jeremy Irons is doesn't get to do much as the hapless everyman that every Kafka hero ultimately is. The film, despite the title, has very little interest in giving us an accurate portrait of the writer, or any insights into his character beyond the commonly accepted historical details. However, Irons does lend a quiet reserve and intelligence to the role that is invaluable. Theresa Russell sticks out rather badly as Gabriela, but the rest of the supporting cast is excellent. It was a pleasant surprise to find actors like Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guinness, Ian Holm, and Joel Grey among Kafka's chief tormentors.

I didn't mind the weaker plotting for most of the movie, since it only seemed to be an excuse to stage these wonderful scenes of suspense and mystery anyway. It was only toward the end, where the film tried to give us definitive answers, that things went seriously awry. The point of most Kafka stories is that there is no satisfying resolution and there are never definite answers. I won't go into much detail because far too many reviews give away too much about the relevant plot points, but it felt like that later segment of the film was part of an entirely different production, not just because of how it was presented, but because it seemed to switch genres for a few minutes as well. Was this intentional? If so, I suspect that the talented young director at the helm wasn't sure footed enough to pull it off.

The young director in question was Stephen Soderbergh, fresh from his success with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." "Kafka" was only his second film, and remains an almost total outlier from the rest of his body of work. Perhaps it would be best to compare it to "The Good German," the black and white WWII film which Soderbergh made fifteen years later, with only the filmmaking techniques that would have been available in the 1940s. That film was also more style than substance, with a few modern touches that felt out of place. Were they simply made as technical exercises, so that the director could see whether he could work within these older styles and recreate the celebrated techniques of the cinema titans of old?

Perhaps, but "Kafka" comes across as more than just an imitation. The Welles style works beautifully for the material, and Soderbergh absolutely nailed the sinister mood and tone of the film. If nothing else, his "Kafka" was appropriately Kafka-esque.
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Director David Lean is best known for his epics like "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," and "The Bridge on the River Kwai." However, he started out in the UK making smaller, more intimate films, like the classic unrequited love story "Brief Encounter," and adaptations of "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist." It's into the latter category that my favorite David Lean film should be placed: the very small-scale domestic comedy-drama "Hobson's Choice."

My favorite films by a particular director are rarely the best films that they have produced, and that's certainly the case here. Lean hardly gets to show off any of his skills as an epic filmmaker in "Hobson's Choice." All the action takes place in a pair of shoe shops, a local pub, an apartment, someone's basement, and in the adjoining streets. Instead of a cast of hundreds or thousands, we have the family of Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton), who runs a boot store in Salford. Hobson is a widower with three grown daughters, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), Alice (Daphne Anderson), and Vicky (Prunella Scales). One day, fed up with living in a house full of women, he resolves to find husbands for the younger two, though both already have matches in mind, and keep Maggie, the eldest, at him to look after the shop and keep house. She's too old for marriage, he declares. Maggie, however, has her own ideas.

You can probably guess why this film strikes a nerve with me. Charles Laughton is billed as the lead, and he's terrific as the bloviating, frequently tipsy Hobson, who has been master of his own little domain for so long, he has taken it for granted. However, there are two others who should share top billing. First there's Brenda De Banzie as Maggie, who is sharp-minded and iron-willed enough to figure out how to grab the life that she wants from under her father's nose, once she makes up her mind to do it. And then there's John Mills as Will Mossop, the timid bootmaker in Hobson's employ, who Maggie matter-of-factly declares will become her husband and business partner in a new shop. The one-sided courtship of Maggie and Will is one of the most enjoyable I've ever seen, a sort-of reverse "Pygmalion," where it's the woman who educates and elevates the man from a lower station, but in this case she couldn't be more pleased when he surpasses her.

I've never encountered a film heroine quite like Maggie, who is so forceful and direct. She's entirely pragmatic about getting married, requiring not the least bit of romance, but turns out to be quite affectionate in her own severe way. This is a woman who has always been in charge, running a household, managing the store, and looking after everyone else around her. Now she's turning all her underutilized talent and untapped brain power to go after what she wants at last. Her escape from her father hinges strategy and cunning, rather than appeals to sentimentality and emotion, as we usually see in these situations. Thus the film simply would not work without the no-nonsense performance of Brenda De Banzie, who makes Maggie a formidable force to be reckoned with, but still sympathetic as a woman and as the daughter of a most disagreeable father.

And then there's John Mills, a name I knew, but never quite managed to put to face before this. Will Moss spends much of the film in a state of constant astonishment, taken aback at first by Maggie's forwardness, but eventually finding it much easier to go along with what she wants instead of trying to work out some reason to disagree with her. Mills gets a few delightful scenes to himself, to process and react to what is happening. His development from a soft-spoken, unappreciated laborer to a businessman with real ambition and authority is a major highlight of the film.

In comparison to Maggie and Will, I didn't care so much about the troubles of Henry Hobson, even though Charles Laughton cuts such a memorable figure as the lumbering old drunk. He's appropriately pitiful when he hits rock bottom, but never quite as sympathetic as he ought to be. As a blowhard, he can wear out his welcome very quickly. He's great for comedic purposes though. The filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of Hobson's frequent tipsiness, and the few fancy visual tricks that appear in the movie are to help better convey the extent of his inebriation.

So "Hobson's Choice" is no epic, but it's a remarkable of a picture that offers a lot of surprises. The black-and-white visuals are gorgeous, the writing is immaculate, the performances are fantastic, and though the story may be a small one, the drama that it generates is anything but. This is one of David Lean's more obscure films, but it's easily my favorite of them by a wide margin. I like his later, more famous films, but I wouldn't have minded at all if he'd just kept making movies like this one.
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I heard Jon Stewart namecheck this movie a couple of times on "The Daily Show," so out of curiosity I looked it up. It's turned out to be a 70s thriller about Nazi-hunters and medical experiments, starring Lawrence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and James Mason, and sounded right up my alley. I wondered why I hadn't heard of it before. Then I watched the movie.

"The Boys From Brazil" starts out with an intriguing mystery. A young American in Peru, Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg), stumbles across a secret meeting of several prominent Nazis who have been living in hiding in South America, including Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) and Eduard Seibert (James Mason). Mengele orders the assassinations of 95 men across the globe over the next two years, all of them seemingly unremarkable and unrelated, except that all are 65 years old. Kohler manages to relay this information to a prominent, elderly Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), before he is killed. So the task falls to Lieberman to uncover and put and end to the nefarious plot.

The particulars of that plot, however, border on the absurd. This is a film that only could have been made in this era, decades before certain scientific advancements, and back when people still worried there might be escaped Nazis living among us in secret. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote "The Stepford Wives" and "Rosemary's Baby," it plays on fears that largely no longer exist, and thus hasn't aged very well as a serious thriller. If "The Boys From Brazil" were made today, it would probably be done in the style of something like "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," accentuating rather than downplaying all the pulpiness and that certain odd campiness that comes with everything Nazi these days.

It doesn't help that the film is very mediocre. The cast is the film's best asset. It's nice to see Mason and Olivier on the screen in any capacity, and they play the parts assigned to them as well as anyone could have. Olivier in particular disappears into the kindly Lieberman as easily as he became the evil Nazi dentist Szell of "Marathon Man" two years earlier. Gregory Peck makes only a passable Dr. Mengele, and he's much stiffer than he should be. He avoids being camp in any sense, which is probably why he was cast in the first place, but I couldn't help wishing that Peck could have switched roles with either Mason or Olivier for better scenery-chewing potential. I want to point out a very young Steve Guttenberg, oddly resembling a clean-cut Seth Rogen, who acquits himself admirably as the doomed hero of the first act. Other familiar actors like Denholm Elliot, Bruno Ganz, and Uta Hagen pop up in smaller roles.

Until Mengele's plans are revealed, the mystery and suspense elements work very well. Jerry Goldsmith's score lends a lot of atmosphere and tension, in a way that not enough movie scores do anymore. Director Franklin J. Schaffner gets a lot out of his locations, particularly the streets of Peru, Mengele's clinic in the wilderness, and the rural Pennsylvania farmlands where the climax takes place. The action and chase scenes work, and the Nazis are credibly menacing. However, the truth about the conspiracy is pretty easy for a modern viewer to work out once you're past a certain point in the story, but the filmmakers take extra care to make sure that a 1973 audience would be able to comprehend what was then unfamiliar, cutting-edge scientific theory. The explanations can't help but get tedious.

Another problem is Jeremy Black, the young actor who plays a crucial role in the film's third act. His character is supposed to come off as sinister and perhaps otherworldly. Black looks striking enough, but his acting skills leave a lot ot be desired. I felt sorry for the poor kid, thrown into scenes with Peck and Olivier where he doesn't come off well at all. This is really the fault of whoever cast him, and whoever saddled him with some very poor, tin-ear dialogue. Between Black and Peck, the finale turned into a total farce, and Olivier looked like he just wanted to go home.

It feels like "The Boys From Brazil" was meant to follow in the footsteps of "Marathon Man" or "The Odessa File," films that certainly had their genre flourishes, but were completely serious thrillers. With its third act jaunt into science-fiction, "The Boys From Brazil" just isn't the same kind of material, and I think it suffers a bit from being played so straight. I think it would have made for a far more memorable horror film in the right hands. As it is, the movie has its charms, but it's easy to see why it didn't survive the seventies.
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Of all the freshman series I started watching back in the fall, I'm still keeping up with two of them pretty regularly: crime procedurals "Grimm" and "Persons of Interest." As we're well into the midseason, I thought it was time for a quick update.

"Grimm" has had an interesting ride so far. It honestly hasn't gotten much better than the original pilot, which I found pretty lackluster, but it has shown that the silly premise of a supernatural cop, called a Grimm, policing the descendants of fairy-tale creatures in the Portland area has some pretty strong legs. Instead of slavishly modeling each case after a specific fairy tale, it has quickly taken the "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" approach of having the fairy-tale creatures mirror specific social ills or embody the factors that sometimes lead to crime, and slapping on a made-up German name like "blutbaden" for Big Bad Wolf creatures. So a timid man might be secretly a mouse creature, while a slimy lawyer is really a snake in disguise. The monsters-of-the-week that the writers have come up are often much more interesting than the lead characters.

On that note, I still don't think much of David Giuntoli, who plays the main character, Nick Burkhardt, or Bitsie Tulloch as his girlfriend Juliette. There has been almost no progress made regarding Nick's development as a Grimm or how that might affect his relationship with Juliette, obvious plot hooks that were set up in the pilot. Instead, the most interesting character is still Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), the reformed blutbad who reluctantly lends his help on Nick's cases. The bumpy developing friendship between Nick and Monroe, where Monroe always seems to be getting the short end of the stick, is a lot of fun. It works a heluvah lot better that Nick's partnership with his actual partner, Hank Griffin (Russell Honsby). I hope the writers find some way to give Juliette and Hank more to do on a weekly basis, maybe letting one or both of them in on Nick's secrets, so they'll be able to interact on a more regular basis, instead of all being stuck in their own separate little corners of the "Grimm" universe. Still, even as it is now, "Grimm" is a lot of fun. It's an easy watch, it's inventive, it's schlocky as hell, and I still think it has a lot of potential to be better.

"Persons of Interest" has settled into a pretty good case-of-the-week procedural, heavier on the action scenes than most. Since the pilot, it hasn't maintained the same level of expensive car chases and explosions, but neither have they entirely disappeared. We get about one good feature-quality action sequence a week, which is plenty to keep up the momentum of the plots. The production values are still very high for a prime time network show. The writing's quickly become formulaic, but it's also remained above average. So far, "Persons of Interest" has hinted that it's going to get into some labyrinthine back story about the creation of crime-predicting machine, but for the first part of the season the writers were more concerned with slowly moving Taraji P. Henson's character, Detective Carter, into an uneasy alliance with our hero, John Reese (Jim Caviezel). And happily, his dead girlfriend and all the angst that went with her, have largely dropped out of sight.

I'd complained that in the pilot, Caviezel's performance was too low-key and too blank, making it difficult to empathize with him. This has changed considerably. He still speaks softly and carries a big stick, but those bursts of personality that only came out during his badass moments have stopped being bursts, and now he's just a badass full time – and a bit of a deadpan snarker. His associate, Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), has remained exactly the same, the incredibly intelligent, eccentric, and nebbish man behind the machine. He's clearly got a few skeletons in the closet that are going to come out eventually, but he's not the sinister mastermind I thought he might become. Quite the contrary. Some of his best moments are when he's used for comic relief. Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Chapman, who plays her partner, Detective Fusco, have also been holding their own. Henson especially, has become much more fun to watch now that her character is in the same morally gray area as the rest of the ensemble.

And now that I've firmly latched on to these two, I've happily let "Law & Order: SVU" slip out of my rotation for good. I was a fan of the show for years, but enough is enough. If I want to watch a crime show that has given itself over to so much sensationalism, I might as well watch one with fairy-tale monsters or one-man-army vigilantes.
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I have seen thirteen films directed by Billy Wilder, plus one that he co-wrote, and it's that one that he co-wrote that I'm tempted to write about today. However, I think too much of the success of "Ninotchka" was really due to its director Ernst Lubitsch, and it doesn't seem right to call it a Billy Wilder film. So Greta Garbo will have to wait her turn. Today, let's talk about Norma Desmond.

"Sunset Boulevard" was made in 1950, roughly fifty years after the advent of commercial cinema and twenty years after the end of the silent era. Hollywood had been long established as the center of the filmmaking world, and countless stars had risen and fallen in its glow. And even then, the town was notorious for having a very short memory. In the opening frames of "Sunset Boulevard," we're led to believe that we'll be watching a film noir about an unfortunate young screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden), but in truth the film is an examination of a particularly dark corner of Hollywood, embodied in the form of a forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

Swanson's performance as Norma is legendary. The exaggerated mannerisms, reminiscent of silent film acting, make her seem larger than life, while also lending an eerie otherworldliness to her presence. Her rage and desperation are displayed in ways that would be outsized for a different character, but not for one whose whole life is shaped by her almost instinctual desire to perform. It was no accident that Billy Wilder and his collaborators sought out real silent film actresses for the role, and settled on Swanson, one of the leading lights of her day. In her hands Norma is a magnificent manifestation of the dark side of show business, a cruel reminder that fame and fortune can be fleeting, and that Hollywood is a dark and empty place when the spotlight moves on to someone else.

If you haven't seen "Sunset Boulevard" in a while, it's easy to forget that Norma isn't the only character in the picture and the grand melodrama of her madness is tempered with a lot of Wilder's best humorous dialogue and wit. Joe Gillis is an incurable snark, who delivers countless zingers against the Hollywood system that must have echoed Wilder's own sentiments. Norma is prone to exotic extravagances like a pet chimp, whose funeral we witness early in the film. There are many striking moments, like the New Year's celebration, where the mood is a strange mixture of camp and tragedy, verging on horror. These are the ones that tend stick in my mind, because they seem to be daring the audience to react, but refuse to tell you how or what to feel. The film can be watched as a pitch-black comedy or a bizarre, bitter tragedy, or both at once.

"Sunset Boulevard" is still startling today for the depth of its cynicism and the darkness of its subject matter. Paramount was doubtful about the commercial prospects of the picture, convinced that no one would want to see such a negative portrayal of Hollywood. Before Billy Wilder, the film industry was not in the habit of encouraging self-examination. And yet "Sunset Boulevard" was a success, and an enduring and influential one at that. I think what helped it connect with audiences was how authentic it felt. Norma Desmond was mostly caricature, but one rooted in a truth that is still rarely acknowledged - silver screen immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. And Hollywood, even at its darkest, is a place of endless fascination for many. Who wouldn't want a chance to peek into the parts we don't normally get to see?

And to the delight of me and my fellow film nuts, everywhere in the "Sunset Boulevard" are nods to and echoes of a Hollywood that most people had forgotten by 1950, from Buster Keaton at Norma's card table to recycled props from the silent "Phantom of the Opera." The most famous reference was of course Max, Norma's faithful servant, played by the once celebrated silent film director Erich von Stroheim, who transitioned to an acting career in the 30s. Von Stroheim even directed Gloria Swanson in a silent film, the unfinished "Queen Kelly," which Norma plays brief clips from for Joe.

So in its own twisted way, "Sunset Boulevard" is a paean to Old Hollywood, much like "The Artist," which is currently playing in the theater across the street. But while "The Artist" is a fairy tale, that finds a way to give its has-been silent actor a second chance, in film noir there are no happy endings, and Billy Wilder took that to heart when he set one in the heart of Hollywood. But thanks to his daring, Norma Desmond is an icon of film, and Gloria Swanson will never be forgotten.
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Since writing up this post about the potential similarities between the Bill Willingham comic "Fables," and the new fairy-tale themed shows "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm," I've finally had the chance to sit down and watch the two pilots and do some assessment. Thought I'd share a few thoughts on them below.

Of the two, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" appears to be the more impressive at first glance. It has a cast with bigger names, and the creators seem much more gung-ho about the whole fairy-tale idea. In the pilot, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and other fairy-tale characters are transported by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) to a small town in Maine called Storybrooke. They live out normal lives, with no memory of who they really are, but they can't leave and never age. The only one who can break the spell is the grown-up daughter of the prince and princess, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), spirited away to Earth as a baby before the spell could affect her. Emma is brought to Storybrooke at the urging of her own son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who she had to give up for adoption, and reappears in her life as a precocious ten-year-old. Henry knows the truth about Storybrooke, but his adoptive mother is none other than the Evil Queen – the town's mayor.

"Once Upon A Time" is so family-friendly, brightly-colored, and utterly harmless, it almost makes my skin crawl. It does nothing remotely interesting with the fairy-tale characters, letting them all conform to the utterly sanitized, cartoonish, Disney-fied versions that the popular culture is familiar with. And no surprise, as "Once Upon a Time" airs on the Disney-owned ABC network and makes use of its library of characters. Human versions of Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) and Grumpy the Dwarf (Lee Arenberg) appear in the pilot, and the extended cast list promises more to come. Aside from Jennifer Morrison, the performances are too broad and over-the-top. Lana Parilla's bald-faced bitchery is already making me think this could end up being "Desperate Housewives" with glass slippers. The writing is clever in some respects, but so bland and so clearly uninterested in exploring the classic stories in any real depth, I found it hard to stay engaged. Also, the production design is pretty atrocious – like Disney's "Enchanted" or their 90s "Cinderella" special on a fraction of the budget.

I'm much more partial to NBC's "Grimm," which takes a completely different approach. It's a police procedural, following police officer Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), who discovers he's descended from a line of Grimms, who protect humanity from fairy-tale villains. Russell Hornsby plays Hank Griffin, Nick's partner, and Bitsie Tulloch plays his girlfriend. Two other characters more worthy of note in the first hour are Nick's tough Aunt Marie (Kate Burton), and Eddie Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a twitchy, reformed "blutbad," better known as a Big Bad Wolf. The Blutbaden, who live among humans and are undetectable save by Grimms, are set up as the major villains of the series. In the first hour, a blutbad snatches girls wearing red hoods, including one who took a shortcut that she shouldn't have.

"Grimm" has a pretty shaky first outing, but I also think it has a better premise and the right attitude toward adapting fairy tales to the modern day. It emphasizes the horrific elements at the core of most of these stories instead of playing on our nostalgia for happily ever after endings. "Little Red Riding Hood," referenced heavily in the pilot, has always been a cautionary tale, based on potent, real-world fears. The concept of the blutbad is hokey, and there's not much that distinguishes them from the demons on "Supernatural" or the vampires on "Buffy" right now, but "Grimm" has plenty of room to improve. The acting is solid. The effects aren't great, but they're used well. And then there's the chilly, edge-of-the-wilderness atmosphere, helped by the fact that the production is based out of Portland, with all those Pacific-Northwestern forests in close proximity. Also, I really think the procedural formula is going to help rather than hurt "Grimm" in the long run, because it'll help some of the more outlandish elements go down easier.

I'd like to reiterate that I really see no similarity between either show and "Fables" at this point. The mythology of "Grimm" is totally different, and so is the way that it uses fairy-tale allusions. "Once Upon a Time" is a closer match, but the tone and focus of the story aren't, and the show totally rejects the subversive edge of the comics. For some that may not be such a bad thing. I suspect that I would have liked "Once Upon a Time" much better if I were younger and less familiar with the gorier, toothier, original versions of "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," and so on. And while I think "Grimm" is more promising, it is a little frustrating that I already suspect that if it does well, it may never break out of the procedural formula.

So will somebody please just adapt "Fables" already?


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