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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I feel a little guilty writing this post, because casting news is really pretty speculative stuff, and there's really not as much controversy to talk about the way there was with the "Fantastic Four" cast a couple of months ago, which touched off a good debate about racebending and diversity. But good grief, the newly announced cast of the next "Star Wars" movie seems to be all anybody is talking about. The list of names was released yesterday, along with a picture of everyone gathered together for a script reading. The internet happily went bonkers over the news, so what the hell. I'm as much of a "Star Wars" nerd as anybody. I should get to enjoy this moment too.

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

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

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

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

It's finally sunk in that the new "Star Wars" movies are really happening, and I find myself excited about the franchise for the first time in a very long time. I was so disappointed by the prequels, I forgot how much fun "Star Wars" hype can be. While I'm fully aware that this could all turn out badly, today I'm just going to put the cynicism aside and enjoy the possibilities. I can't wait for 2015 and "Episode VII."
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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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I was going to wait until the US release dates, but screw it. Distributors have been dragging their heels and these features have already hit home media in several other countries, so you're getting reviews of some of my most highly anticipated films from last year now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the three major South Korean directors who made films for Western audiences last year, Bong Joon-Ho has found the most success, and "Snowpiercer" suggests that he may have more mainstream prospects if he wishes to pursue them.
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I wasn't the most consistent viewer of "Star Trek," but when I was in junior high, I spent every weekday before dinner watching the syndicated reruns of "Next Generation" and marveling over an adventure show where problems were solved by smarts and diplomacy as often as fisticuffs and gunplay. It was my gateway into science-fiction television, and though I never became as attached to the other "Star Trek" iterations, I still count myself as a "Trek" fan wholeheartedly. Here are my top ten favorite episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate. And I am totally cheating and counting two-parters as single entries.

"Q Who" - "Next Generation" famously suffered through some rocky early seasons, but Q episodes were always a a highlight. I debated between "Q Who" and "Deja Q," but this one has to make the list for the first appearance of the Borg, the greatest villains introduced by the "Next Generation," and a great supporting turn by Whoopi Goldberg, who joined the cast in the second season. And I love that the whole story was a lesson in hubris - there's always going to be something out there that humans will be unprepared to face.

"Yesterday's Enterprise" - I used to get this one mixed up with the seventh season episode "Parallels," but "Yesterday's Enterprise" is the far better episode, a time travel story that has the Enterprise-D encounter its predecessor ship, the Enterprise-C with some dramatic consequences. I always appreciated that this episode gave Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and was so fully committed to a fairly heady premise involving alternate timelines. You almost never see time travel stories that deal so much in similar consequences.

"The Offspring" - The tale of Data's daughter Lal is one of the funnier hours that the show ever came up with, but also one of the most poignant. Data's experiments to understand humanity and his own existence better were hit-or-miss, often coming across as too pat or contrived. However, his first jaunt into parenting is definitely one of the hits, giving us a brief glimpse of relationship I wish we could have seen expanded into further episodes. It also makes a good counterpart to the famous "Measure of a Man," which just missed a spot on this list.

"Hollow Pursuits" - Poor Lieutenant Barclay. He's that awkward introvert we all know who loves shows like "Star Trek," but is rarely portrayed as part of the "Star Trek" universe. This episode fixes that, giving Barclay the spotlight for a self-contained adventure that takes a piece of future technology we're familiar with, the holodeck, and using it in a way we don't expect - namely giving a man's fantasy life a little too much life. I always liked it when "The Next Generation" gave us a break from formula, especially for stories as much fun as this.

"The Best of Both Worlds" - There's no denying the impact of the Borg on the "Star Trek" universe, and this was arguably their best appearance on "Next Generation," finally clashing with the Federation in full-scale combat. There are so many memorable moments in this two-parter: the wrecked Federation fleet, the first separation of the Enterprise's saucer and stardrive, and who can forget the shocking cliffhanger that introduced Locutus? It's no wonder this remains one of the series' most popular stories, and influenced so much "Star Trek" to follow.

"Darmok" - The first episode that I remember watching, and one of the best examples of a "Star Trek" story that favors thinking through problems instead of using brute force. I've read through enough analyses of this episode to understand that the linguisitic puzzles are pretty much bunk, considering the use of the universal translator, but still the message and the execution of it are so well done that they hit home beautifully. And special kudos to Paul Winfield's performance as Dathon, still one of my favorite guest appearances on the show.

"I, Borg" - There were only six episodes in the entire run of "Next Generation" that featured the Borg, and I've managed to include four of them on this list. This is the last, where Geordi LaForge meets a young Borg he names Hugh, and teaches him the foreign concept of individuality. This is such a wonderfully thoughtful episode, that really gets into what it means to be human and how we define the self. And after the fireworks of "Best of Both Worlds," it's a good reminder that every villain in "Star Trek" is a potential friend.

"The Inner Light" - Boldly going where no man has gone before can take on many different forms, and perhaps no voyage of discovery Captain Picard ever took was as strange and wonderful as the one he experiences in "The Inner Light," where Picard lives out the simple life of a man on a different planet, from a different civilization. It's such a quiet, seemingly uneventful episode where it's not clear what is going on until the final set of reveals, but the emotional punch that it delivers rivals anything else that "Star Trek" has ever done.

"Ship in a Bottle" - I always had a thing for the holodeck episodes, which often provided a nice change of scenery or access to unusual characters. Daniel Davis's Moriarty was introduced way back in the Season 2 episode "Elementary, Dear Data," a clever story but nothing special. I'm glad that they brought him back for this follow-up, where the question of whether a hologram can be considered a form of life is introduced, and there's a twisty plot involving figuring out who is in what frame of reality. I don't even mind that the ending cheats.

"All Good Things" - The finale two-parter gives us a chance to say goodbye to all the beloved characters, gives us another ripping time travel story, and brings back Q in the judge's outfit to deliver a final lecture. It makes for a fitting ending to the series, giving us a peek at what the future holds in store for the crew without setting anything in stone, revisiting familiar themes, and leaving plenty of room for more adventures. "The Next Generation" went out on top, and precious little in the "Star Trek" universe has come close to it since.

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Minor spoilers ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone with less of a simian fixation. Seriously, what was with all the monkeys?
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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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The first "Hunger Games" movie was a little rough around the edges and a little oddly formed. At times it didn't feel quite committed to its shocking premise, and its young heroine was a little too opaque. Still, it did distinguish itself from all the other young adult genre franchises thanks to a good lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and some genuinely resonant subject matter. The sequel, I'm happy to report, manages to improve on it substantially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well. Maybe I expected too much. "Almost Human" is still a perfectly watchable genre show and continues to display a lot of potential to be better than it is. However, I'm not going to be too disappointed if this turns out to be its only season. It produced a few good episodes and created some interesting characters. It's just too bad that it never took advantage of everything it had going for it, and produced anything really great.
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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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Okay, no waiting until March this year. Sundance and the Superbowl are behind us, and I've got a pretty good bead on the titles I'm looking forward to. Like last year, I'm splitting this topic up between the bigger, mainstream releases, and the smaller, artsier prestige titles. And if previous lists have been any indication, several of the latter are probably going to be delayed until 2015. Since I've already covered them in previous posts, I will not be talking about foreign options that are only getting their U.S. releases this year like "Mood Indigo" and "Snowpiercer." Also, I think I've said enough about "X-Men," "Interstellar," and "Transcendence" in past entries. Here we go. Big titles up first:

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

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

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

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

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

"Into the Woods" - Now this could turn out to be terrible. All the movies on this list easily might be. However, I just love the idea that somebody is finally bringing Steven Sondheim's musical about fairy-tale characters facing the consequences of their fanciful adventures to the big screen. And because it's Disney, we're getting an all-star cast including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, along with a few others who can actually sing. Rob Marshall's directing career has been very hit or miss, but he's a good fit for this material and I'm looking forward to the end result.
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It doesn't matter how ludicrous a premise is as long as the ideas behind it are strong the filmmakers are committed to it. And so it is with "Her," Spike Jonze's science-fiction fable about a quiet, depressed man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his new Siri-like operating system, or OS, named Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen). The film is frequently funny, but it takes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha absolutely seriously, and takes care to develop it like any other conventional romantic connection. The pair have their ups and downs, their problems and their issues. Theodore is still coming to terms with his separation with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), while Samantha's consciousness is still developing, and she has insecurities about her intangibility.

Because the relationship exists entirely in the conversations that the pair have, the film depends heavily on Phoenix and Johanssen, the later of whom is never seen onscreen. However, the dialogue is so strong and the actors are so committed, it works. Phoenix carries much of the film, often the only character onscreen, playing intimate scenes against nothing more than a voice in his ear. And then there's Johanssen, who manages to convey so much emotion and feeling through her monologues. I admit that I was skeptical when I heard that she was getting some awards attention for this performance, but after seeing the film it's not had to understand why. Samantha's believability as a sentient and vulnerable living being is what the whole relationship and the whole story hinges on, and she's easily one of the best artificial intelligence characters I've ever seen in film.

And around the couple, Spike Jonze creates a melancholy Los Angeles of the near-future, where human life is more intertwined with technology than ever. Creativity is still valued, though, and most of the characters we meet are artists of one kind or another. Theodore works as a writer of heartfelt personal letters. His best friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a documentarian. One of Samantha's many interests is in composing music. Instead of taking photographs to capture the moments between her and Theodore, she writes songs. The film has a unique, delicate atmosphere that is fiercely personal. Nearly everything we see is limited to Theodore's daily personal interactions, and the narrow scope is just right for the story. Larger issues about the ramifications of the OSs becoming part of society are hinted at, but "Her" is primarily concerned with being a love story, and brings up plenty of questions already.

The conversation surrounding "Her" has been fascinating to follow, because this is one of the first films to tackle this subject matter that is so sympathetic to the human that falls in love with the computer. Usually these stories have a dystopian bent, and getting too close to an AI is symptomatic of something wrong with the human partner or the relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for technology becoming too invasive. In "Her," Theodore is perfectly capable of romantic relationships with other women, as we learn from flashbacks to his marriage to Catherine and his efforts with a blind date, played by Olivia Wilde. In addition, Samantha may not be tangible, but it's the film's position that she's a real sentient being and the feelings between her and Theodore are real. So the problems that develop between them are no less valid than the problems faced by any other couple.

"Her" can be seen as a new take on the "My Fair Lady" story, where a romantic partner who is initially guided and defined by man eventually grows beyond his narrow conception of her and becomes something he couldn't anticipate. The commentary on life in the digital age also hits the mark. In a sense Samantha stands in for all technology, conceived of by well-meaning inventors to meet certain human needs, but that becomes an independent entity that takes on a life of its own, with unexpected consequences. I'd hesitate to call it a cautionary tale, though, because Theodore's relationship with Samantha is hardly more damaging than or unhealthy than one he might have had with a physical person.

This may be my favorite Spike Jonze film, because it's so personal and so idiosyncratic. Not that his earlier films weren't these things, particularly "Where the Wild Things Are," but none of them have been this unabashedly romantic. I love that it's not scared to be emotional and corny, and that Theodore is such a sensitive soul whose vulnerabilities are so easy to see. Phoenix's performance isn't very showy, but it's one of his best too. Freddie Quell from "The Master" was a lot of fun, but playing an ordinary man in love with someone that he never lays eyes on is something I don't think many other actors could have pulled off.

Considering the talent involved, I had pretty high expectations for "Her," but I didn't expect to be bowled over to this extent. "Her" is one of the best screen romances in recent memory, and one of the best science-fiction films too. It's easy to make fun of its silly premise, but "Her" makes the strong case that it may not be so silly after all.
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I want to get into some spoilers for the first season of this show, but since this is my first post about "Orphan Black," I'll write up a spoiler-free review first. The spoiler section will be clearly marked below.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It used to be that the start of the TV midseason in January was for the premieres of the second-stringers, new shows that weren't good enough to premiere in the fall, and the return of existing ones that were solid but unspectacular performers. A few familiar titles might be held back to plug in expected holes in a network's schedule, and a few shows might be switched to different time slots, but there was nothing really big to look forward to.

Well, cable content changed all that with its vastly different year-round scheduling, and the rise of foreign television and the web-content have only made the change more pronounced. Now there's a lot of new television to look forward to each January, and this year looks like it's going to get off to a big start. Lots of new shows and lots of returing ones will hit the airwaves soon, giving February's Sochi Winter Olympics some serious competition for eyeballs. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most anticipated shows coming (back) our way.

"Community" and "Hannibal" - Both of these critical darlings were renewed by the skin of their teeth for NBC, and both are coming back shortly after New Years. Original recipe showrunner Dan Harmon is back for a course-correction after the not-entirely-disastrous fourth season of "Community," and there may be hope for a sixth season yet. The really interesting one to keep an eye on will be "Hannibal" though. The buzz for this show has only increased during its hiatus, and hopefully audiences have had a chance to catch up on the first season. It'll be taking over the Friday late night slot from "Dracula" in February.

"Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" - The fourth series of "Downton Abbey" ran from September to November of 2013 in the UK, and will be coming to PBS in January. Viewers regularly complain about the gap in broadcast dates, but that gap keeps getting shorter as the series progresses. "Sherlock" fans will have an even shorter wait. The much anticipated third series premieres on New Years Day in the UK, but will begin airing on PBS on January 19th, and hit DVD and Blu-Ray the week after that. And let's not forget the "Doctor Who" Christmas Special, which BBC America will air on the same day as its premiere in the UK.

"True Detective" and "Black Sails" - One of the most anticipated HBO originals in some time is its upcoming drama series that will star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a pair of detectives on the hunt for a serial killer. Billed as an anthology of crime stories, the cast is expected to change with each season, so its high profile leads aren't locked into a multi-year commitment. It premieres January 12th. Two weeks later over on Starz, we'll see the premiere of "Black Sails," a pirate-themed adventure show following Captain Flint and his crew. This should not be confused with the upcoming NBC series "Crossbones," with John Malkovitch, which has yet to secure a premiere date.

"Flowers in the Attic" and "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" - Lifetime has latched on to event movie after the headline generating buzz of projects like "Liz & Dick." This January we'll be getting a new adaptation of the notorious V.C. Andrew novel "Flowers in the Attic," starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as members of a seriously dysfunctional family. And then comes "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" starring Christina Ricci in the title role. Lifetime isn't exactly known for the quality of their TV films, the descendants of the once-popular network "Movie of the Week" franchises, but these both of these projects feature a lot of good talent and the trailers that have been released certainly make them look like a lot of fun.

"Space Dandy" - Almost entirely under the radar to everyone except us anime fans, "Space Dandy" is the newest series from Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the beloved "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo." The series will actually be premiering first in the US on January 4th, fully dubbed, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and then in Japan a day later. This isn't the first time a US broadcaster has made a deal like this, but I've never seen one for a series so highly anticipated. "Space Dandy" will be a science-fiction adventure comedy, following the adventures of a super-cool and super-perverted alien hunter.

Other January season premieres include "Girls," "Archer," "Justified," "Mythbusters" (which is kicking things off with a "Star Wars" special), "House of Lies," "Banshee," "Shameless," "Episodes," "Teen Wolf," "Pretty Little Liars," "White Collar," and "The Fosters," "The Americans," "Vikings," and "House of Cards" will be back in February.

On the network side, I'm still holding out hope for the Alphonso Cuaron-produced supernatural series "Believe," which is slotted for the mid-season, but had its premiere date pushed back after reports of production troubles. Also keeping an eye on FOX's "Rake" with Greg Kinnear" and the army-themed comedy, "Enlisted."
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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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Spoilers ahead for the "Doctor Who" 50th Anniversary, "The Day of the Doctor," and the recent "Doctor Who" mythos in general.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let me get the obvious comparisons out of my system first. FOX's new science-fiction cop show, "Almost Human," could also be titled "Blade Runner: The Series" or "Alien Nation: The Android Years." It's takes place in a world roughly thirty years into the future, where android "synthetics" are now a common part of human society. After a massive uptick in crime due to the rise in well-organized, well-armed criminal syndicates who deal in all kinds of dangerous new technology, all police officers are now required to have a synthetic partner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And does this have to be the last Cornetto film? There are so many more movie genres that could use this trio's attention.


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