Saturday, May 24, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

If only we could tell you the adventure had returned, if we could say this was as good as any of the previous Indiana Jones - even Temple of Doom - we would relish the words.

But it is not to be.

Indiana Jones, we are sad to report, did not attend the words of Peter Pan. Dr. Jones has finally grown up. Oh, they tried to hide it. They hit him, dropped him, and knocked him about more than ever. But, even though he always got back up, there was something missing. Certainly no one could survive the punishment Indy endures in the original movies, but we were able to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the absurdity of it all. Here... it's just too much. Indy is an old man, though he continues to shrug off blows and atomic explosions like a superhero in his twenties.

The energy was no longer there, and we weren't there with him. There was a sense that the movie was trudging from scene to scene: the traps and enemies never seemed all that dangerous, no matter how many bullets and poison darts conveniently missed him.

The villains were too incompetent to prove much of a threat. We spent most of the movie pitying them. It's just harder to hate Russians than Nazis, and these communists never stood a chance.

No matter how hard they tried, the filmmakers couldn't capture the spirit of the first three. So they made do with digital imagery, generating backgrounds and prairie dogs alike. What remained was more of a cartoon than an old serialized adventure. Think The Mummy Returns for a reference.

Setting aside the overall feel, the movie was mixed. The actors did a fine enough job, though the story was lacking. More specifically, it was lacking logic and coherence: there were, however, several great gags and moments. But there was nothing more, nothing unifying or pulling it all together.

In concept, the movie was crafted after the pulp serials of the 1950's. Though they didn't abandon ancient civilizations and artifacts, the whole thing was more science fiction than fantasy. While the execution was lacking, we appreciate that they branched out in a new direction. Perhaps if they make another movie, Indy will battle a crime syndicate or something.

In some ways, the worst decision made may have been to craft this as an "Indiana Jones" movie: the character of Mutt Williams held more interest overall. If Lucas and Spielberg want to make future films chronicling the adventures of Indy's son, we may look back on Crystal Skull in a fonder light.

But it can't live up to its own legacy any more than it can escape such comparisons. On a scale from one to five stars, where five stars would equal any of the original films, we'll be kind and hand this three. You could do worse this summer, no doubt, but, given the choice, go out and see Speed Racer instead: it's an underrated gem than needs your love and support. Indy, on the other hand, will do fine without your money. Besides, you've seen this CG before.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Could it happen?

We've been aware of this project for a while now, though we are sceptical the film will ever be made. Green lighting a Green Arrow movie alone would be an uphill struggle, and this is no simple origin story.

David Goyer (iD&Di: .92), writer of all three Blade movies and Batman Begins, has written a script detailing Oliver Queen's incarceration and escape from the worst prison in the DCU. Well, one of the worst prisons, anyway.

It is particularly appropriate: Queen first picked up a bow while deserted on a tropical island. He isn't superhuman like Superman, lacks a source of cosmic power like Green Lantern; heck, he doesn't even have Batman's strategic ability.

Besides his bow and a handful of trick arrows, Green Arrow has one major advantage going for him: he's a survivor. And putting him into the midst of supervillians sounds like a great way to explore that.

What's more, this could help expand and connect DC's film universe in the way Iron Man brought together Marvel's.

But could this movie actually be made? Granted, the budget could be at least somewhat constrained: it's cheaper to tear up a set - even an expensive one - than to tear up a CG city. But even so it sounds as if there would be no shortage of effects, and that costs money. So the question becomes, "Can Green Arrow support a major motion picture?"

We in The Middle Room have long maintained if you make a good enough movie, people will pay to see it. After all, Iron Man wasn't exactly Marvel's most popular hero. But our opinion, tragically, is not as important as Warner Brothers' and they aren't known for taking risks with their superheroes. While Marvel has moved forward with a dozen or so projects, we've only seen Superman and Batman actually make it to theaters from DC.

On the other hand, they seem to be moving forward with the Justice League, and following Marvel's recent successes, it's hard to imagine the Warners aren't trying to find a way to cash in, as well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Movie Review: Prince Caspian

When the first Narnia film came out, comparisons were unavoidable. Depending on who you asked, it was either "Lord of the Rings" for children, "Passion of the Christ" for children, or "Harry Potter" for children. Well, Christian children.

What was less controversial was the quality of the movie: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe wasn't very good. Actually, the first half was very good, and the second half wasn't.

The sequel is somewhat more complicated. First of all, while the same old comparisons will no doubt be unearthed, and while there are certainly still similarities to those films, we were reminded of another type of film entirely.

Prince Caspian was Conan for kids. It was, you see, a blood bath.

Only without the blood.

The children from the last film return with a vengeance. The Narnia they knew and loved has fallen, overtaken by armies of human soldiers intent on cleansing the fairytale land of any surviving fairytale creatures.

Against such evil there can be no discussion. Fortunately, despite their size, the children are seasoned warriors. They use their skills and the weapons given to them thousands of years before by Santa Claus himself to slaughter their foes. Aided by an army of oppressed dwarves, centaurs, talking animals, and Prince Caspian, they decapitate, impale, and crush their enemies.

There are losses on both side, however. Many of their friends fall while the children watch on. In one particularly disturbing moment, Peter is forced to leave some of his forces behind to die, and watches on as they're butchered. Of course he later takes his revenge on the field of battle.

The only thing more brutal than the children is an adorable mouse named Reepicheep, who hamstrings his victims, bringing them screaming to the ground, where he slits their throats with ruthless efficiency.

All safely off camera, of course: this is a kid's film. But make no mistake: each of those soldiers has a family. By and large, they aren't even evil: for generations they've been fed lies about their world and its inhabitants.

Overall we enjoyed this movie, though it was far from perfect. There remained a disconnect between the dark, close scenes, which were highly impressive, and the bright sunny moments... which were, well, far too bright and sunny. In addition, the movie never felt completely right. It isn't entirely fair to blame the filmmakers, though: many of the problems originated in C.S. Lewis's book. The ending, in particular, is heavy handed and forced. The symbolism, which felt subtle and well used for most of the movie, became overt in the last fifteen minutes. The conclusion left much to be desired.

Don't go expecting Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter: Narnia lacks the power of either these franchises. But if you're looking for a family action film, where young children travel to a magical kingdom, kill their enemies, and hear the lamentation of their women, you could do worse.

On a scale of one to five stars, where five is Conan: The Barbarian, Prince Caspian receives two and a half. If they'd left in the blood and gone for an "R" rating, we'd have been more generous.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

We've Come A Long Way Since Galileo

Long time visitors to The Middle Room know we have a complex relationship with the Vatican. We have reached out to their organization on a number of issues and have attempted to find middle ground and compromise.

To this day, they have yet to hear our call and do what's right... but that is another issue, and we shall not dwell on it now. Likewise, the church has yet to offer any official apology or explanation of any kind for their involvement in last April's debacle. But then, that wasn't really their fault, and we certainly haven't heard a word of regret from the CW, who we hold ultimately responsible.

Until recently, we were beginning to suspect that the Church wasn't even reading our words. It even seemed possible, however unlikely, that they were unaware of our presence.

Fortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. In what we can only assume is a olive branch to geeks, the Vatican has just affirmed that Superman is entirely compatible with Catholicism. This in no way surprises us, of course, though it is nice to see it so officially acknowledged.

Yes, every extraterrestrial from the Predator to Darkseid is made in God's image. We in The Middle Room would like to offer our heartfelt thanks to the Vatican for eliminating any possible confusion.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Movie Review: Speed Racer

The critics, of course, have already spoken, and if you put your hand to your ear, you can hear their cries echoing even now. They will tell you not to see this movie. They will tell you it is something no one older than twelve can enjoy. They will tell you that Speed Racer is a bad movie.

But we tell you that they are so very wrong.

As much as we love V for Vendetta, and as much as we respect The Matrix, this is the Wachowski brothers' (iD&Di: .78/.79) finest work to date. It is something we haven't seen in a long, long time: it is something new.

Ironic, that something new should be based on something old, that Speed Racer, so anchored in the past, should create such a innovative world. But this is unlike anything you've ever seen before: it is a world of color and motion.

It is not a cartoon.

Compared to Speed Racer, cartoons are bland and static. Music videos are tedious and slow. No, Speed Racer is not a cartoon, but the experience of watching a cartoon brought to new levels. It is a sugar rush, the likes of which you have never seen or felt.

It is gloriously juvenile.

Had such jokes existed in any other movie, we would have groaned in disgust. But here, in this madding, twisting, world of endless racetracks and twirling cars, we laughed in ecstasy. The comedy was not merely written for children, but rather was written as though it was written for children forty years ago.

It rejects subtlety.

And it does so without apology. It is blatant, explosive, and neon-colored. It is absurd and spectacular. Wonderful and insane. This is not filmed in three dimensions, but rather two. The actors are paper thin, edited over moving backgrounds and colorful lights.

How do we compare a movie that has no comparison? We turn, of course, to the closest things available. We look to other films with little grounding. And, when we look close enough, there are echoes. We remember Sin City, with its ink-filled comic world. We remember Tim Burton (iD&Di: .33) movies, which hold style above all else. And, of course, the strangest of Japanese Animation, such as Dragon Half: and this may come as close to the feeling of Speed Racer as we're likely to find.

But, to truly gauge such greatness, we need to compare Speed Racer to Kill Bill, the only other movie to move in such broad strokes and odd turns, the only other film to make Japanese Animation truly move in this world. Graded on a scale of one to five stars, where five stars is Kill Bill, Speed Racer receives four.

So eat a bowl of frosted flakes, topped with three tablespoons of sugar, then drive to your nearest theater right now. And, reader: drive fast.

Part II

We in The Middle Room are not intrinsically opposed to sequels. However, there are some movies which end, where continuation is neither required nor welcome.

We were alerted to the project, as usual, by Ain't It Cool News, and we can find little fault in their analysis of the situation. Were Rickard Kelly (iD&Di: .81) returning, obsessed with telling another story in the same er... multi-verse (the universe most of Donnie Darko took place in was destroyed during the movie), well then, we might be intrigued.

As it is, we are baffled. Since hearing about this project we have been trying to think of movies where a sequel would be LESS appropriate. While we were able to think of a few such films, the list was short, indeed.

The only conclusion we've been able to reach is that a studio executive somewhere is under the impression that Donnie Darko is a horror movie. And, as we all know, the way to make money is to make sequels to successful horror movies.

Of course, Donnie Darko is not horror. There are elements, to be sure, and imagines in the film that are frightening, but it is science fiction first and foremost. It is also a dark comedy, a period piece, and a tribute to genre films of the 1980's.

It is not, in any sense, the first chapter of a longer story.

One wonders if the sequel will take a similar approach to the 1990's. It is hard to imagine how such a film would work. The 80's were the decade of Back to the Future, ET, and a hundred other wonders. The 90's were a less fertile time for science fiction at the movies. Surely there were some wonderful films produced, but little as iconic as what came before. The Matrix came out in 1999, but that was more a harbinger of the year 2000 than a product of the 90's. Most other science fiction films of note were either sequels or remakes. Anime was popular, as I recall. There were several television shows of note, among them The X-Files, which encapsulates the era as well as anything else I can think of. Will "S. Darko" try to capture that tone? I suppose it is possible.

But all of this just continues to beg the question, "Why bother?"

We'll have to wait and see if they can produce a satisfactory answer.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Crisis On Infinite Comics

To some, Free Comic Book Day is merely another holiday, awarded no more significance than, say, Arbor Day or Christmas. We have even heard it said, though the idea troubles us greatly, that there are those who do not celebrate the first Saturday in May at all, that some might not have heard of this day.

But to those of us in The Middle Room, Free Comic Book Day is more than a mere holiday, more than ritual. A few years ago, we heard a friend describe Free Comic Book Day as Geek Independence Day. At the time, we took this for a joke.

As we've reflected on this day, as we are wont to do, we have considered those words and their meaning. We have considered the timing of Free Comic Book Day, which coincides with the theatrical release of a comic book film, and we have looked back at the history of this celebration.

It all began, dear reader, in May of 2002, on the weekend of Spiderman's release.

The weekend that changed the world. Spiderman set an opening record, grossing over a hundred million dollars in its opening weekend. With that, the stage was set. Superhero movies were greenlit left and right. The musty historical epics and the mindless action movies were replaced with warriors gloriously clad in bright spandex.

Free Comic Book Day is truly the day Geeks declared Independence.

It is a day we in The Middle Room take seriously. The planning began months ago. Maps of the city were analyzed; notes from last year compared. Every conceivable path was considered, until at last we had our itinerary.

You see, to truly experience Free Comic Book Day, one must visit more than just a single comic shop. Look again at the picture introducing this post. Know that no army assembled that collection: that was two people.

"Why two?" you may ask. Because, as the old saying goes, Free Comic Book Day is for lovers. Nothing brings two people together like waiting in line for two hours outside Midtown comics for a bag of free comics.


Together we collected 124 comics, one poster, a DVD of Sideshow Collectibles, and an Iron Man Hero Clix. I say we received 124 comics, but I should admit that many of those were duplicates. But that is all right. Because the faithful of us know in our hearts that Free Comic Book Day is not meant to be celebrated one day a year: Free Comic Book Day is part of us, it lasts all year.

So shall, we suspect, the process of giving out our extra comics to our friends who had to work today. This may seem at first to be a crisis, but all is as it should be. Free Comic Book Day is intended to spread the word, and the picture as well. It is as much a philosophy as it is a marketing tool.

And it is not without miracles. Today, in Jim Hanley's Universe, we met Dan Slott (iD&Di: .92), who was listening to Jonathan Coulton. Then, when we stopped for lunch, we were given - without asking - a free soda. There is no mundane explanation for this: it was a sign.

Happy Free Comic Book Day. We hope you are sharing it with a loved one.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Movie Review: Iron Man

How good is Iron Man? It is a question every critic and movie reviewer must now confront and, likewise, must answer. If you walk the twisted paths and dim tunnels of the internet, you will find many answers. Most of them will say that the movie was very, very good. Then, you will note, they will add that it was not quite as good as, for example, Spiderman 2. Or Batman Begins. Or another of the superhero movies out there. Everyone has their favorite, and that, they will say, is slightly better than Iron Man.

These observations are indeed accurate. Iron Man is not the best superhero movie you have ever seen. But... do you remember the experience of seeing that other movie? Well, Iron Man will bring you the same sort of joy, the same satisfaction.

The acting, as you've no doubt heard, is excellent: the cast, as a whole, is nearly as entertaining as the cast of X-Men 2. What's more, Robert Downey Jr. (iD&Di: .42) gives the single best lead performance we've seen in a superhero movie since Christopher Reeve donned tights and cape. As an origin story, it adapted the comics nearly as well as Spider-man. It provided a psychological glimpse of Tony Stark a hair's breath from what we were shown in Batman Begins. And the writing: smart, witty, and funny, was almost as good as The Incredibles.

We can delve deeper into this pattern: for the film is a fractal. For example: the desert battle halfway through the movie was the second best military/superhero desert battle we've seen, just coming up short of Ang Lee's (iD&Di: .25) Hulk.

This movie is not destined to be your favorite superhero movie. It will, however, not disappoint you.

In today's world, film making has evolved into something of a race, where each picture futilely tries to show you something you've never seen before. We are tired, dear reader, and more often than not such attempts come up lacking: at this point there is little we haven't seen. Iron Man does not compete in this contest: instead, it provides something you HAVE felt before, long ago: a real sense of wonder and entertainment. Jon Favreau (iD&Di: .57) has crafted an exceptional film which accomplishes something few movies do: it exceeds our expectations and succeeds as a movie.

Oh, yes: you will believe a tin-can can fly.

The movie is not perfect, and we'd have liked the end fight to be, well, bigger. But make no mistake, though Iron Man may not be better than the best superhero movies ever made, it can stand among them and hold it's helmeted head high. This is a fantastic film, and you should rush to the theatres to see it.

How to rate Iron Man? As longtime readers know, here in The Middle Room we rate things differently. If five stars is X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, or Batman Begins - take your pick - Iron Man is a solid four star picture. What's more, while we can't claim it's quite as good as those other movies, we didn't enjoy it any less. What more can you ask of summer entertainment?

Before we leave, there is one final thing we need to add. When you watch Iron Man and the movie ends, you may feel an urge to leave the theater. Ignore it. If you have to use the bathroom, hold it. Stay in your seat while the credits roll: sit and wait until the last has gone by. Because, at the end of it all, you will be rewarded with the single best additional ending we have ever seen. Anywhere.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Economics: A Retrospective

Having just recently considered our own impending economic issues, the subject is fresh on our minds. It is somewhat timely that we should have stumbled across a relevant article, albeit somewhat dated.

It should come as no great shock to anyone to discover that here in The Middle Room we have whiled away many a day wistfully speculating as to the victors in theoretical battles. But such fanciful discussions are the things of youth.

Now we have grown, and should consider grown-up subjects. Such as monetary holdings.

It is pointless to ask, for example, who would win in a fight: Batman or Hank Scorpio? (The answer, of course, is Batman.)

Instead we should be asking, whose corporate holdings are greater? Who has invested better and planned for their future? The answer, of course, is still Batman.

Forbes, apparently, has long been aware of these issues, and provides assistance. It is not merely the existence of this list which has impressed us, but rather the diligence in its compilation. There was research here, and science, too. This was not tossed together quickly, like some half-formed joke.

This was serious work.