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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Summer Blockbusters: The 2014 Report Card

            Well folks, it’s once again report card day!  Everyone’s favorite day of the year!  Since the reception to this idea last year was fairly positive, I decided to once again pick up my big red grading marker to offer out points to the best and worst that the studios gave big, multi-figure budgets to in order to coax more pennies out of our pockets than ever before (that said, actually, does anyone still use pennies?). 

            It should be noted that, this time, I am playing a bit loose with the definition of “summer,” which I am comfortable doing because the studios are doing it too.  By “summer blockbuster” I am not referring to anything that happened to come out between June 1 and August 31.  I will instead look at any major action film that is set within a real-world, sci-fi, fantasy, or any other kind of world and that was backed by a major studio that has come out this year, even if it was released before what officially counts as “summer.” 

            It will also be noted that these grades are not the same as the ratings I gave some of these films in my reviews (links to those that I did review will be embedded in the titles).  I am not ranking these from overall “best” to “worst” film.  It is my own subjective judgment as to how well (or how poorly) each of these movies worked specifically as a piece of diverting, blockbuster-y, action-y entertainment.  Complaints are welcome in the comments section.  And will likely be ignored. 

            Oh, and spoiler alert.  Just in case. 

The Lego Movie:   A+

            Now, I know what you’re thinking; Noah, you’re nuts including a movie that came out in February in a list of supposedly “summer blockbusters!”  To which I reply, “Perhaps.  But you’d be nuts to expect me not to.”  And the reason for that is simple- there was no release this year that succeeded as brilliantly in successfully encompassing all the elements of a good summer romp; not only did it have exciting, well-choreographed, and VISIBLE action scenes and hilarious and witty writing featuring quote/meme-generating dialogue, but it also managed to even wrench in what was effectively a philosophical deconstruction of its own existence.  The Lego Movie is not just the best summer blockbuster of the year.  It’s one of the best films of the year, period.  So far, at least. 

Edge of Tomorrow:   A-

            Functioning basically as a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day, wherein Tom Cruise gets stuck in a time loop fighting aliens threatening to destroy the world, this film managed to utilize its time-jumping plot gimmick to very impressive effect.  It is incredibly hard to find so many different ways of visually showing what are technically the same scenes over and over again without getting stiflingly repetitive, but this one pulls it off, even if it sort of gives up and takes a cheap way out towards the very end.  Plus, it features a plethora of hilariously inept Tom Cruise deaths for all you out there who still hate his guts.  Seriously, I know plenty of Cruise-haters probably passed this one up on sight, but trust me- in a strange, twisted way, this is actually the perfect film for you. 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (review)-   A-

            I had some issues with this one- the fact that the actual Winter Soldier was a sideshow in the end, and that the third act had really nothing to distinguish itself from any of the other third acts we’ve had thus far.  On the other hand, I loved every scene with Anthony Mackie, I loved having a plot that was actually pretty fun to follow along with, and I loved Robert Redford being possibly the first interesting villain we’ve had in this series that can stand alongside Loki.  And yeah, I am inclined to agree, it’s the best of the Avengers series thus far. 

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction-   Nope 


How To Train Your Dragon 2 (review):  A-

            It’s not perfect in the story department, I realize that; Astrid and Valka are criminally underused, especially in the big third-act bonanza.  But holy cow, does it take no precautions with its fierce visual audacity.  Let’s ignore for a second that the CGI is as detailed and realistic as anything we’ve yet seen from a major studio, Pixar included; what also makes this film such a visual wonder to behold is its palette.  As a certain dog used to say, “The colors Duke, the colors!”  I saw this film 3 times in theaters, once in 3D, and it was worth every penny to be able to let the vibrant visual designs sink in.  Oh yeah, and the actual movie was a pretty damn good trip too. 

The Guardians of the Galaxy (review):  B+

            I realize many of you are going to be shocked by this, but yes, ‘tis true- I don’t think Guardians was the “best” of the summer crop this year.  Oh I laughed!  Quite a lot!  In fact, if I were ranking the summer films in order of how funny they were, I most likely would have tied this with The Lego Movie as one of the year’s funniest.  However, in terms of being a summer blockbuster, there is more needed than just the ability to split sides.  And this movie, while delivering heaploads of character and self-aware humor, doesn’t go quite as far as The Winter Soldier did in terms of delivering a narrative or action beats that in any way distinguish themselves from what’s come before.  Not that I didn’t enjoy the action too, but with the exception of the admittedly brilliant ploy used to beat the villain, let’s be honest- other films have already been there and done that. 

X-Men: Days of Future Passed (review)-   B

            A few story inconsistencies aside, I heartily enjoyed this nostalgic throwback to the days of the early Singer works in this franchise (I almost wrote “glory” before “days,” but my common sense stopped me in time).  The mixing together of the different casts was handled well, and despite J-Low’s least efforts, most of the cast seemed to be having a good enough time to allow us to have fun too.  I expected to have fun and feel like a teenager again, and that's what I got.  Color me interested to see where they go from here. 

TMNT:   Nope

            See Transformers 4 above. 

Spiderman 2:   HAHAHAHAhahahahaha no. 

            Seriously, no. 

Lucy (review):  B

            At first glance, this may seem like the outlier in the group, being a European production unconnected to the American studio system.  Also, it is one of only two films in this post featuring a female protagonist.  Plus, there’s the fact that it is really more of a trashy concept film than a sleek, high-budget blockbuster (it only had a budget of 40 million).  However, it came out during the actual summer months, topped the box office in its opening weekend, and is officially classified as a “sci-fi action movie.”  So it counts. 

            Even if its themes and execution of its twisted story are sometimes a bit muddled (and simultaneously lacking any kind of subtlety), this is still an interesting time at the movies.  I appreciated the visual cutaways offering a bit of variety to the film’s imagery, it is undeniably enjoyable to see Johansson literally levitating the bad guys with her mind, and I appreciate the fact that the film at least tries to get its audience to take some big questions seriously.  Even though I doubt many of the people who saw it got the message. 

Maleficent:  B-

            I began to lose patience with this one in its literally leather-clad third act, which featured a frustratingly thin attempt to posthumously ape Frozen's thunder with yet another True Love’s Kiss Fakeout.  Sleeping Beauty herself is also little more than a walking, talking plot device, and while I get how they wanted the fairies to come across as funny, um….yeah, I wasn’t really chuckling a whole lot.  However, and this is the first and last reason I think this is a film worth seeing by anyone and everyone, Angelina Jolie kills as Maleficent.  She absolutely kills.  Her choice to use rape as a metaphor for the scene where she loses her wings is inspired, because it sets the tone for the rest of the film and makes it hard to turn the film off until it’s over.  Few other summer flicks had a comparable moment this year. 

(FYI, I know the above is unusual for being a still- I just love that 5-second bit)

Godzilla (review):   C+

            And, finally, we come to the least of the summer fare of 2014.  At least, of the ones I saw, and I shudder to think what depths await me below this one.  Not that I didn’t have fun with this one either.  The scenes actually featuring the monsters were dully impressive, with the last battle being particularly awe-inspiring.  The problems are in the all-too-long in-between scenes, where we are forced to spend our time with boring, boring, BORING human characters played by people who seemed to know quite well they were being given nothing to work with.  Which meant that audiences were left with little choice other than to tune out for most of the film. 

            And that’s it!  That’s all for the summer action fare of 2014!  True, we will still have the next Hunger Games installment and the last of the Hobbit movies, which I will review for this site, so the action is not all over for year.  But the months with nothing but action movies as the kind of stuff we can look forward to?  Gone.  Thankfully, mercifully gone. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Under The Skin

Under The Skin (2013): Written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell, direct by Jonathan Glazer.  Starring: Scarlett Johansson, and the entire nation of Scotland.  Running Time: 108 minutes.  Based on the novel by the same name by Michel Farber. 

Rating: 4/4

            As most of you have no doubt heard by now, Under The Skin is one of those wholly unique experience movies that garner near-universal praise at film festivals but conversely seem doomed to cultural “irrelevance” for being “too arthouse” for mainstream viewers.  Viewers who, it should be noted, are responsible for Transformers 4 currently holding the 2014 record for biggest opening weekend- truly, Brutus, the fault does indeed lie within ourselves.  As a result, most cinemas worldwide did not bother showing the film for any extended period in time, and even in Germany, theaters had to be cajoled into showing it.  At long last, a single showing (at a horror film festival, of all things) at a theater near me, and I can now partake in the rounds of “Well, what the hell was THAT about?” now circulating the internet concerning Jonathan Glazer's welcome distraction at the end of what has not been the hottest of all summers (but more on that in the next post). 

            An eye-like spaceship is our opening shot (possibly), descending close to Earth, as we begin to hear the unmistakable sounds of a woman (or perhaps not a woman) practicing human speech.  After cutting to the planet’s surface, we see the selfsame woman being provided by a biker (wearing a uniform not unlike the Judoon from Doctor Who) with the dead body of another woman with a similar build and face.  Naked, she takes off the cadaver’s clothes and puts them on herself.  What follows could, perhaps, be labeled a montage- in and between various scenes, we are inundated with so many of the typical sights and sounds of city life, but despite the closeness of the camera, one can’t help but feel a hesitant distance, and the world we are all so familiar with begins to feel rather, well, alien. 

            This is a deliberate effect on the film’s part to quietly slide us out of our normal perceptions of each other as people, and to see us as the woman sees us, at least at first; as strange, amusingly exotic creatures, there to be manipulated and used for her own purposes.  What that purpose is, I cannot exactly say.  She drives around Scotland in a highly pedophiliac van, trying to convince men on the street to get in the car to give her directions.  They are not random selections.  She seems to only target men who walk alone, live alone, work alone, and are seemingly disconnected from any connections to other people.  She lets them in and chats them up, and when they are willing (and horny) enough, they accompany her to her place, a room that seems to be darker and murkier than the deepest holes in space.  She strips, backing away slowly, and they eagerly follow after her, but for some reason cannot reach her.  Instead, they slowly sink to the floor that the woman seems to be able to effortlessly walk upon, which lurches around their bodies like some kind of sinister tar, and are pulled under.  We see later on after one of these episodes what actually happens to these men.  I will not divulge the information here, partially because it can barely be described, and also because, along with an accompanying scene on a beach in the movie’s first half, it is possibly the most ethereally unsettling experiences I’ve had in a theater this year, and its potent effect can only be felt to be understood. 

            This routine only seems to change when she actually doesn’t follow through with one of these clearly sexual encounters- after taking in a heavily disfigured young man, something moves her enough to let him go, and soon afterwards, to flee from the biker and his cohorts who can really only be described as her “handlers.”  Soon, even though we know from the beginning (and are shown explicitly by the end) that this woman is not human, she begins to look and act as if she feels she is one.  What this leads to I dare not spoil, for it is an intriguing and wonderfully shot exploration of the very idea of self, and whether or not that sense could, or even should, change over time. 

            Much has been made of the crisp, steady cinematography, which is stunning at its best and merely interesting at its worst, but I have thus far seen all too few reviewers lauding the soundtrack, an eerie collection of dissonance in string form that creates the feeling of a horror movie, even though I don’t know if this is a movie that could be classified under any genre.  It is one of the best musical scores written for film this year, yet I already fear that this film’s determination to not bother making sense or explaining itself will scare away most major nominating committees.  It is also a slow movie, which will bore or frustrate a great many, much like the other major, heavy thematic think piece of the year, The Wind Rises.  Indeed, like with The Wind Rises, I felt the running time much more than I usually do when watching a movie.  Whether that is the fault of the movie or my own for being tired is too hard to say, and for that reason, I felt it would be unfair to penalize the film for that in the above rating. 

            Truly, it is a think piece in every sense of the word.  What to make of this woman and what she does?  Is this a metaphor for human trafficking, or slavery, or prostitution, or even gender identities?  We never know precisely why she is here targeting men, but it’s interesting to note than the movie deliberately does not go for physical stereotypes with its characters.  Scarlett does not look airbrushed or digitally altered in her appearance, simply like a normally curved woman.  And the men are hardly the sort of chiseled beefcakes we’ve come to expect from……well, pretty much everything these days.  They are normal guys.  Some thin, some thick, and all a little awkwardly gangly when naked.  Also, why Scotland?  Is the movie a subtextual message about how bored, lonely, sexually adventurous men and predatory women are the reason the country felt compelled to hold a referendum on independence? 

            Obviously, that particular interpretation is highly unlikely, but it speaks to the film’s opaqueness that I feel justified in being able to even suggest such a wildly outlandish idea.  I don’t know yet if I love or just greatly respect Under The Skin, but I certainly don’t expect to see anything like it anytime soon.  And given the degree of samey blandness we are offered regularly by studios in the film industry and by pop “artists” and their own handlers in the music industry, such unique events are to fully celebrated and embraced. 

            Actually…..wait a second, that’s it!  The film is an expose of the ruthless exploitation of female pop singers, taken by recording execs and forced into their preconceived straightjackets of musical sound and identity, brutally punished when they try to break free.  It all makes sense now! 

            Oh who am I kidding, that’s probably not it.  I think.  Right?    

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Lucy

Lucy (2014): Written and directed by Luc Bessen.  Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik.  Running Time: 89 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            I suspect a great many people who saw Lucy (and the same may also apply to those who are planning to see it in the future) were expecting it to be nothing more than a high-octane action thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as a Black Widow mockup, using the debunked “we only use 10% of our brains” urban legend as a passing justification for Lucy being able to take down bad guys with increasingly Jedi-esque psychic powers.  I know I certainly was, at least to some extent.  To my pleasant surprise, that was not the case.  While it is far from perfect, and could perhaps have done more with what is actually a pretty decent sci-fi set-up, Lucy is a fun and interesting visual ride, and is definitely worth taking the time to see. 

            The film does indeed start as a straight-up crime thriller- Lucy is an American study-abroad student (you can’t pretend to be this young forever, Scarlett dear) in Taiwan, who gets tricked by a friend into becoming the unwilling carrier of a package of neurotoxic drugs inserted into her belly.  The series of scenes setting this up produced the most squeamishness I’ve felt in a movie theater thus far this year.  The violence is brutally unflinching, and Scarlett perfectly captures the look of a terrified bird trapped in a cage.  The sci-fi aspect soon kicks in, though, when one of the thuggish guards beats Lucy so violently (apparently unaware of what she’s carrying inside of her) that the bag with the drugs splits, causing the toxin to spill undiluted into her bloodstream.  It is right around now that we learn, via a series of cutaways to a lecture being given by Morgan Freeman (because really, who else?), that this drug contains chemical properties that can jolt the human brain into unlocking more and more of its “potential.”  And by potential, I mean basically the ability to do anything and everything required by the plot. 

            These scenes, especially at the beginning, also feature a great many shots of stock National Geographic footage centering on wildlife spliced in between the bits of dialogue, obviously meant to enhance/add symbolism to whatever happens to be going on in the narrative at that particular time.  While the clips brought in are brutally lacking in subtlety, it’s an interesting effort on the director’s part, something you usually only see in pure arthouse fair, and I appreciated the visual variety it brings to keep things interesting to watch. 

            When she realizes what is happening, Lucy has a surgeon remove the remaining drugs from her system and contacts Morgan Freeman, hatching a plan to obtain from the other carriers the rest of the drugs so that Freeman can make a formula with them that will boost her brainvolution into overdrive, so that she can amass as much information on the nature of reality as possible and pass it along before…..well, it’s not entirely clear what will happen, at least at first.  First, though, before any of that begins, she calls her mother.  Realizing that the process she is undergoing is likely to be irreversible, and suddenly hyper aware of the true miracle of what mothers do for their children, she calls her mother from the hospital, and thanks her in detail for what she did for her growing up.  It all centers around a line that, had Scarlett been any less sincere in her performance, would have reached new heights of oddball corniness.  Here, though it’s properly affecting.  It’s always good to see a movie selling itself on the action take a slow moment here and there to let us connect things together. 

            Although, as previously admitted, I wish the movie had played around a bit more with the concepts it introduces as plot points, and even the story does stretch itself thin by the end, I can’t find all too many reasons to complain.  There is a nice visual style being brought to play here, culminating in a journey Lucy takes through time and space, including an encounter with her unspoken namesake, the proto-human female whose skeleton is now also known as “Lucy.”  In a shot reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel, Lucy reaches out to touch proto-Lucy’s finger with hers.  Is the movie implying that present-day Lucy herself becomes our God, or rather that even in a hyper-advanced mental state, she is still susceptible to the cultural sensitivities of her upbringing, unable to resist indulging in a moment latent with obvious symbolism? 

            I was never blown away by the movie, but it did give me some interesting ideas to chew over, and as the credits rolled I couldn’t help but think that it was a pity that most of the people I saw it with would probably feel no urge to think about the film on a level any deeper than, “Huh.  Shit was cray-cray.”  But I digress.  If I spent more than a few passing moments worrying about the lack of intellectual curiosity amongst the general movie-going public, I would never again wish to see the light of day.  To return, then, to the topic of this review.  Lucy is definitely not the best of this year’s summer fare, and it in no way touches the intellectual heft of Scarlett’s other major non-blockbuster feature of the year Under The Skin, which we’ll get to soon, but there is an intelligence in its story and enough commitment to the execution to make the trip worth the time and effort. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Cloudburst

Cloudburst (2011/14): Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald.  Starring: Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Fricker, and Ryan Doucette.  Running Time: 93 minutes.  Based on the play of the same name by Thom Fitzgerald. 

Rating: 3/4  

            It has been fascinating to watch how, over not much more than a decade really, a titanic shift has occurred within the popular consciousness concerning homosexuality and the idea that homosexuals should enjoy the same rights and privileges and be as free of abuse as heterosexuals.  To some degree, it has been a shift pushed by my own generation, more eager to embrace social deviations from long-standing cultural norms, and I sincerely hope it’s a shift that will also extend to racism, sexism, and bigotry in general.  We shall see.  In the meantime, Cloudburst is here to offer its own take on the ability of love to transcend the limitations imposed by other people, the general social order, and by our own physical bodies themselves. 

            Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker star as Stella and Dotty, an elderly lesbian couple content to live out their years in the quiet countryside of Maine, near the Canadian border.  Not that life is easy- Dotty is blind and overweight, and even Dukakis’ sharp-tongued Stella is slowing down with the years.  One thing I appreciated most about this film was how it doesn’t skirt around the struggle against physical decline that we all face sooner or later.  In fact, it’s one of the central points on which the story turns.  Because of Dotty’s blindness, her granddaughter, somehow totally oblivious to the nature of her grandmother’s relationship to Stella, shows up with her husband to get her to sign papers allowing them to put her in a retirement home.  Dukakis is infuriated by this, and responds by first pelting the poor girl with hot water and flour, then by attempting to choke-hold the husband, and finally (after being held up practically at gunpoint) by breaking Dotty out of said home, after which they decide to head out north to Canada and get legally married, to make sure that they can never be forcefully separated again. 

            So for the most part, it’s essentially your standard roadtrip/romantic-comedy rouine, this time with foul-mouthing lesbians who deliberately seek out ways to incorporate into the script every euphemism for “vagina” known to man (and several known to monkeys!).  A young hitchhiking dancer named Prentice joins them before too long.  He is ostensibly along for the show because he believes he has a side story parallel to the main plot to attend to.  In a subsequent scene, he is informed that, as a matter of fact, he does not. 

            I will not spoil the resolution that this builds to, but that doesn’t matter much either way, because this is not the sort of film to try and throw narrative curveballs at anyone.  Its attention is lavished on the relationship between Stella and Dotty, refined over 31 years of living in defiance of what so many people told them was wrong.  Being a decades-long relationship between old people no longer beautiful by conventional standards, quietly confident in their dealings with each other, this of course makes it one of the most compelling and just plain interesting, romances of the year, and it’s ultimately what makes Cloudburst shine.  Dukakis is hilarious with her sharp insults for anyone and anything that happens to, well, exist, and Fricker anchors herself powerfully well in the role of the proverbial contented straight-man. 

            Because I couldn’t help but feel for our two leads (and even Prentice eventually grew on me), I was never bothered by the rougher edges of the film.  Prentice has his moments, but many of the extra actors sounded like they needed a few more read-throughs of the script prior to filming.  The granddaughter and her husband exist merely as plot devices taking some time off from the Adult Swim special they seem to usually occupy when off-screen, and so they never really register.  And I actually would have liked a little more time with the couple prior to the rescue-and-escape mission, to get a better of sense of their interactions when not on the run. 

            No matter though, because I am one of those moviegoers who will forgive many a flaw if I’m given something pretty to look at, and the cinematography and choices of location are gorgeous.  The farm scenes used for many of the settings remind me movingly of another area near the Canadian border where my family owns a large tract of land- it is one of the most beautiful secrets I know of.  And I could not help but think of it as the movie takes us through rolling lush, forested hills, tree groves thick with summer green, and idyllic and sleepy coastal coves. 

            It is a movie that directly addresses one of the fundamental debates over marriage rights raging across the US- in the end, does it really matter?  Is having an official slip of paper from a judge worth the hassle?  Does it really change things within the relationship, and if it does, can it do so for the better?  Yes, Cloudburst is unafraid to say with firm confidence.  Yes, it does. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Legend of Korra: A Book Three Breakdown

**obviously, this contains all the spoilers for Book Three.  If ye have not finished the season, what in the hell is wrong thou?  Get thine ass to the couch!**

            Given the degree to which Nickelodeon made literally every wrong decision it could have possibly made in regards to how to handle both this franchise as a whole and this new season in particular, the fact that Book Three is not only good but easily the best season in the series so far is something of a Christmas miracle.  It’s so good, there is absolutely no sense in me doing the usual "What Worked" and "What Didn't Work" lists I did for Books One and Two.  Oh, there were parts I thought didn’t work, or where I would have liked to see the story go a slightly different way, or a few awkward jokes that whistled past my ear, but on the other hand, there is nothing at all approaching the head-slapping ridiculousness of Book One’s still-official ending, or the absurdities of Korra’s bemusing character relapses in Book Two.  At long last, we’ve gotten a season as perfectly formed and executed as any in The Last Airbender, so this time around, no negatives.  Instead, let’s just celebrate. 

            Something that I took note of after watching the finale (after my heart rate had returned to normal, obviously), is that, thus far, each season of Korra has ended with her being put through the ringer and having some aspect of her powers broken off.  Granted, they whitewashed this out at the very end of season one, but even there, for a period of time, Korra had lost her ability to bend any element except air.  At the end of Book Two, partially due to her inability to stop Tarrloq 2.0 earlier, Raava is literally ripped out of her and nearly obliterated, causing Korra’s spiritual connection to the past avatars to vanish, possibly forever.  And at the end of this latest season, she is injured from her bending battle with Zaheer and also suffering from the debilitating effects of a poison that may or may not have permanently damaged her spiritual and bending powers.  This time around, it’s bad enough that she is physically incapable, at least for now, of acting as the avatar.  The cumulative effect, after three seasons of this, is a final shot that rivals the end of Book Two of The Last Airbender for its sense of heartbreaking gravity; even with the Red Lotus defeated and the air nation reestablished, Korra’s face looks ravaged almost beyond recognition.  For better or for worse, the confidence and cocksureness that have been the hallmarks of her character are gone. 

            Because of this- because we finally see more consequences for Korra’s actions both good and bad, things that cannot be solves with a bending battle- Korra has finally become the interesting lead worth feeling invested in that I was sorely missing from the first few seasons.  I never disliked her, but on the other hand, she was always the least-interesting character on-screen, and it was during this season that that finally began to change.  Not only did I enjoy her presence far more than in the past two Books, for the first time since the show started, I also feel sorry for her losses. 

            Props must also be given to Mako, who, like Korra and Asami, has finally been unburdened of the frustrating relationship baggage that peppered the first two Books.  Able to focus solely on the story as a whole and not on romantic side plots, this season ended up being easily the most tightly written of the series.  I went back and rewatched the season trailer before finishing this post, and thinking back on everything that happened, from the start in Republic City, to the journey through the Earth Kingdom and the gathering of new airbenders, to the prison breaks, to Zaheer's pursuit of Korra, to the destruction of the Northern Air Temple, to the final battle and Jinora’s induction as an air master, I realized just how much story Mike and Brian managed to cram into 13 episodes, easily enough for a whole other season if they had had the time.  And yet, unlike with the previous Book, nothing ever felt rushed or pushed to the side.  All the pieces fell wonderfully into place. 

            The show has also continued to get a hell of a lot darker.  I imagine plenty of people are split about that, but personally, I think the franchise has matured in the right ways, tackling complex issues and the horrors of violence in ways that both provoke reflection and provide for gripping storytelling.  I thought I would never see anything out of this series to top the exploding boat at the end of Book One, but that expectation took a shot right between the eyes when the Earth Queen literally had the breath bended out of her body.  And even that moment of terror was superseded just a few episodes later with P'Li's death.  All it took was a second of seeing her face encased in metal, and a few more of Zaheer's reaction of utter horror.  The scene still gives me the shivers. 

            Something that I also appreciated in this season was its increased focused on real-world, practical politics as the basis of much of the storyline and plot.  As Rob Walker pointed out, other than the spirit Vaatu, all of the antagonists of Korra have been political, at least in terms of their motives.  And that has been the source of her failings and shortcomings as an avatar.  She really is the perfect mirror of Aang- Aang, at least at first, lacked the fighting and martial prowess to truly be able to take on the Fire Lord head-on, but already had much of the emotional and spiritual intelligence and understanding that allowed him to make, in many instances, to make beneficial decisions about maintaining peace.  Korra is the epitome of a natural, able to grasp any form of bending with ease.  But she has never had the real emotional or intellectual center to counter the claims made by Ammon or Zaheer regarding what the best path for the nations of the world is.  Her conversation in the spirit world with Zaheer was one of my favorite scenes of the entire season, the sort of direct debate that I had hoped for in Book One. 

            That said, obviously, there are a great many aspects of the story left unresolved, and whether or not that proves wise will be determined by season 4, which, thankfully, was already close to finished when the Nickelodeon management board suffered its latest psychotic breakdown.  This time around, I am fully excited for a new season without any of the reservations I held going into the premiere of each of the three Books thus far.  I can hardly wait.