Saturday, June 28, 2008

Movie Review - Wanted

You may note the picture above seems out of place, though we assure you its presence was no mistake. It turns out that despite our robust selection of action figures, we've none of Angelina Jolie (iD&Di: .26). Therefore, we've resorted to a pun, and for that, dear reader, you have our sincerest apology.

In our defense, we've a mantra here in The Middle Room: that a bad pun is harmless, while a good pun is an insult to the art form. It is our considered opinion that if you meditate on the wisdom of this, then you will soon forgive us.

Moving on, Wanted is something of a farce, more a comedy than an action movie. This is in no way a criticism, it should be mentioned, but rather an observation. For some, we suspect this will be an impediment. But we are more than happy to indulge in mindless action from time to time, particularly when the results are this much fun.

Shall we begin with the comparisons? You've most likely already seen Wanted compared to Fight Club and The Matrix, and there is certainly some ring of truth to this claim. Still, these similarities are superficial and somewhat misleading. The writer of Wanted, we'd wager, enjoyed Fight Club a great deal, and the director, we suspect, is a fan of The Matrix. Belaboring such points seems unnecessary: there are worse movies for an action flick to emulate, after all. In the end, the parallels are, as Douglas Adams once said, mostly harmless. We saw the resemblance and our opinion of the film remained intact.

If we were to compare Wanted with an existing film, we might turn instead to The Long Kiss Goodnight, an excellent action film with a similar sense of humor. Human life, in these films, is an expendable commodity, and yet it is impossible to take any of it too seriously. There is fun to be had in mayhem and destruction, and both films are gleeful at heart.

Wanted is well directed, well paced, and entertaining. It is not exceedingly clever or intelligent, but then it doesn't seem to be angling for an Oscar. This is a summer movie for a hot day. This, we submit, is the reason air conditioned theaters were invented.

If The Long Kiss Goodnight were a five star film, we feel comfortable giving Wanted four. If you are only going to see one movie beginning with a "W" this week, by all means make it Wall*E. But should you find the heat oppressive and desire a second trip to the cinema, Wanted offers a lot of blood, a lot of death, and lot of childish fun.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Movie Review - Wall*E

Everyone over the age of fourteen needs to watch the first thirty minutes of this film. Everyone younger than twelve should see the remaining hour.

Let us get this out of the way before we continue: when all is said and done, this movie is a hair's breath from being as good as The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. Pixar, in crafting a brand for themselves, have inadvertently set their own standard. No Pixar movie will ever be compared to the likes of Shrek, for instance, which makes it difficult for Pixar to meet expectations. It's easy to make a movie better than Shrek, but far more difficult to match the quality of Nemo.

Some are claiming this is the best Pixar movie to date. We suspect they are focusing on the beginning of Wall*E.

Make no mistake, the first half hour of Wall*E is better than any thirty minutes Pixar has produced. It may be better than any thirty minutes anyone has ever produced.

Beautiful, elegant, and heartbreaking, the beginning of Wall*E left us breathless. It also, unfortunately, raised our expectations to levels beyond human reckoning. When the quality could not be sustained - and indeed, how could it - we felt a twinge of disappointment.

This isn't to say the remainder of the movie is in any sense bad: it is still Pixar, and it still delivers. But as its focus shifts to human characters, the movie loses its subtlety. The plot becomes heavy handed, and holes begin to appear.

Oh, there are still robots aplenty, gorgeous visuals, and dramatic moments to leave you gasping in awe. You will sympathize with the little robot as you follow him through his many trials and adventures. But you also might roll your eyes a bit at some of the dialogue. There aren't a great many lines in this movie: those present should have been better.

It is really just a question of priorities, we suppose. The majority of the filmmakers' attention was directed to the movie's opening, and given its effectiveness, it is hard to fault the choice.

If Pixar's best two movies, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, are five stars
, Wall*E is four and three-fourths. Were we only counting the beginning of the movie, there could be no such comparison: Wall*E would shatter the scale entirely.

No matter who you are, you really need to see the first thirty minutes of this movie. And, since you're there, stay for the rest: you'll enjoy that, too.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Fourth Edition, Part 2

"Once per day, when you die, you can detach your spirit from your body."
-Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition Players Handbook, p. 173, from a description of the Arcane Spirit Archmage feature

It's been a while since we shelled out our hard-earned money for a copy of the Fourth Edition Player's Handbook, and we felt it was long past time to catch up.

With a studious eye we've been carefully considering each word - each vowel in fact - of the book. Well, the first half of the book, anyway: we've been preoccupied with other things; movies, comics, and (tragically) work, so we haven't been able to devote the hours we might have liked.

But we've had a chance to meditate on what we have read, and now seems as good a time as any to take a break and discuss our thoughts, our feelings, and our concerns.

As a country, class issues continue to divide us deeply. There are considerations here in need of addressing, and we feel this is the medium to do it in.

Fundamentally, the class differences have been reduced in Fourth Edition. Fighters and Wizards, for all their differences, are now both structured to deal large amounts of damage directly to enemies. So are Rogues and, oddly enough, Clerics. Many of these classes have other options at their disposal, but more often than not, their standard action in any given round will come down to an attack roll followed by (if they're lucky) a damage roll. There may be some additional effects, depending on the "power" they're using, but this is still a type of attack.

Other class features, from stealth to spells to healing, are secondary.

For those of us who have been gaming for fifteen years now, this is a difficult pill to swallow. Dinosaur Neil, we suspect, understands our pain.

Let us begin by addressing the positive. Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, and Rogues have all been served nicely by this edition. More or less, these are all variations of Fighters anyway, and the "powers" system suits them nicely. Each of these are unique enough to distinguish them from the other classes. Reading the powers, the descriptions, and the rules, we found ourselves intrigued and interested. We would welcome the opportunity to play any of these in a 4th Edition game.

The Ranger, in particular, impressed us. Fused with archers, this has become a fascinating class with more options than ever before. At the same time, they've managed to hold onto the feel of the class, so traditionalists will be pleased. Kudos.

We found ourselves a bit indifferent on the newest class: the Warlord. First a quick description of the class for those of you still confused. Do you remember the scene in Return of the King where Legolas, in a stunning display of skill, single-handedly brought an Oliphant to ground?

Yeah, well, Aragorn told him to do it.

While we like the Warlord in theory, we felt that their powers seemed a bit weak, particularly since they themselves wouldn't typically be executing the maneuvers. We find it hard to believe that players will be scrambling for the opportunity to be the Warlord. Were this Monopoly, Warlords would be the thimble.

We're sorry to say it gets worse from here. While Fighters, along with their friends and relations, have profited, we feel that spell casters have lost their allure.

We know that many will argue with us on this point. Indeed, in many ways Wizards gained the most. Hit points have been equalized, and damage-dealing spells finally make spell casters useful in combat.

To the players chomping at the bit to roll up these "improved" sorcerers we ask one thing: do you value your illusion spells so lowly?

Here in The Middle Room D&D mages were never defined by Magic Missile or even Fireball (though we've certainly had hours of fun with the latter). No, playing a Wizard was about versatility, about finding ways to accomplish more with a cleverly timed Phantasmal Force or Affect Normal Fires than a dozen Fighters could would swords and crossbows.

And these spells, dear reader, are gone.

The vast majority of what is left exists to deal damage. Alter Self has been renamed "Disguise". Now you must be sixth level to cast it. SIXTH LEVEL. Aside from some Cantrips (and we sincerely thank WotC for leaving us these at least), there are few spells with versatile descriptions. Oh, there are some "Rituals" in the back of the book. But these are a sad excuse for what we once had.

The Illusionist, the Enchanter, the Summoner... these are all but extinct. The magics that remain are poor imitations. Necromancers may thrive, but that is little consolation.

The Warlock class seems to be the trade. Elements of the missing spell schools are echoed here, but it is a hollow sound to our ears. Once again, their powers revolve around the dealing of crass damage. Even Enchantments have been tainted: most contain a "Psychic Damage" element, whatever that is.

This brings us to the Cleric. Now, we should start by disclosing that we have never had a deep affinity for Clerics, preferring the Priest class, though that has now been taken from us. Fourth Edition has not altered our opinion. The healing abilities have left center stage, since anyone can heal them self to some extent. To compensate, Clerics have been given additional combat abilities.

Making them a type of holy warrior. We aren't certain if lawyers representing Paladins have filed an injunction yet, but it seems likely they'll have to consider legal action of some sort. Even in a fantasy environment trademark infringement cannot be tolerated. It must also be painfully confusing for denizens of the D&D world to tell the difference. Is that particular armor-clad, sword-wielding religious fanatic a Cleric or a Paladin? Not that it matters, mind you: they're both pretty much the same.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alternate Movie Review - Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods

We in The Middle Room have long suspected that our universe is but the tip of the iceberg, that there are more worlds than this one, that reality is but a single possibility among a million others.

In most cases, this is merely a point of philosophical musing, nothing more. Indeed, we never thought we would ever be driven to venture beyond the walls we know to other lands and other worlds.

But then we saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As we noted before, while this wasn't an awful movie, it left us wanting more. Our expectations were not met - indeed, they were stood up.

Things escalated when we read this article. It is often the case that a major motion picture goes through many drafts by many different writers. In The Middle Room we keep a stack of such discarded drafts to remind us of Fate's fickle hand and, of course, the icosahedron, whose many faces always turn, opening new paths as others close forever.

And it was the icosahedron we found ourselves thinking about as we perused the pages of Frank Darabont's fascinating script. Here, there was no "Mutt Williams." Here, there was complexity and danger - the villains were more than comic relief: they were deadly. Like in the Crystal Skull, Indiana was betrayed by an old friend, but here he was Russian, not to mention competent, capable, and strong. The conclusion of the film included an alien, but this was a cruel being, more than willing to wear the mantle of a god and receive blood sacrifices to prolong its own life. And, unlike the movie we'd seen, Indy actually DID SOMETHING during this encounter.

It was, in short, a superior script.

And we asked ourselves, "What if the die had fallen differently? What if this were the script that had been filmed?"

It was around this time that we recalled that we do keep a working Cosmic Treadmill in a corner of The Middle Room. As we've other methods of time travel at out disposal, we tend to forget it entirely. But the Treadmill has another function, as well: with it one can vibrate through dimensions.

We realized that if we could activate it, we'd be able to travel to other worlds. We could visit an Earth where Darabont's script was realized. So we plugged it into a perpetual motion machine (we picked one up at a yard sales a few years back) and shifted it into overdrive.

This brings us, of course, to the first of many reviews of movies never filmed. Never filmed, that is, on your Earth, and we pity you, the residents of Earth Prime, who will never know the greener pastures on the other side of the multiverse.

But if you ever find yourself with a Cosmic Treadmill of your own, or, for that matter, any device capable of breaching the dimensional constraints of your world and bridging to alternate histories and realities - well then, we think it would be well worth the time to slide from world to world until you find one where Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods was made.

Until then, you may need to make do with tracking down and reading the script.

Without further ado, here is our take:

Movie Review - Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods

Wow. If computers must replace locations, sets, and matte painting, then this is the way to do it. Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods is pulp adventure at its finest. The movie does the impossible: paying homage to the first three films while expanding into a new era; an era of paranoia, atomic explosions, and fragile yet complex alliances.

Spielberg, in our opinion, overuses digital tools here, but this is a minor complaint if one at all. This film is one of action and adventure, fantasy and comedy. It is, indeed, zany at times, but that is all part of the fun. Under other circumstances some of the gags might grow tedious, but here they flow with the film.

This is a movie of character and tone. Indiana Jones has grown older, but he has refused to grow up. This is the Dr. Jones we've known, but, for the first time, we truly see his limitations. Sure, he's moved past his fear of snakes (at least until he's swallowed by one a hundred feet long), but commitment continues to terrify him.

Through the course of the movie, however, we see him confronted with a worse fear: being alone. The love of his life, Marion Ravenwood, has moved on: she's married another.

Fortunately for Indy, her husband is secretly a communist spy and doesn't have her (or America's) best interests at heart. The three of them, along with Russians, a German dreaming of resurrecting the Third Reich, and the power hungry ruler of Peru, seek the power of the gods. And it is the gods they find, in the form of aliens buried beneath the earth awaiting their time to rise. With surgical precision, the very concept of a "god" is dismantled and considered. These are not benevolent beings, but rather cold and calculating lords demanding human sacrifice. One of the aliens is raised from the dead. He is comfortable with the term "god," though it seems to be a matter of expectation and expedience only.

The climatic finale satisfies completely, providing Marion the opportunity to save Indy in a moment reminiscent of the opening of the Arc. Indy, faced with an ancient being of fearful power, reminds us why we love him: instead of running, he reaches for his gun and kills the alien. Of course with her husband dead (and what other end could possibly have awaited him), Marion is available, and the movie concludes (a bit awkwardly perhaps) with a wedding.

Against any of the previous Indiana Jones films, this receives a respectable four and a half stars, only failing to snatch five because of its reliance on computer generated imagery. Truly, it is a worthy bookend to the Jones adventures.


When the Spectacular Spider-Man began we took note, and as the first season has drawn to a close, we felt it important to return and reflect, to consider what we've seen and what we've learned.

Dwelling too long on the design seems pointless, so we will mention now, in passing, that it doesn't do a great deal for us. It isn't bad, per se, but neither is it particularly good. Let us say that it manages to convey the story well enough, and it is really the writing, directing, and voice work that shine.

It is assumed that those of you visiting The Middle Room are familiar with this program, and that it is therefore safe to discuss openly and honestly without fear of upsetting our guests. If this is not the case, if you have yet to see the program and are planning on watching it in repeat or purchasing the DVDs, then we will pause for a moment. Should you prefer to avoid information about the program, what the crass and simpleminded often call "spoilers," then you may want to leave the room for a few moments. Or, at the very least, scroll down to our review of The Incredible Hulk, which is relatively free of specifics.

Every episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man has been, at the very least, good. In fact, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that the worst episodes were VERY good, so we shall do so now.

There were many episodes, however, that did not live up to our initial expectations. Those expectations were set by the pilot, which, for a time, was our favorite episode. The next few fell a little short, but not so far as one might fear. Once the series got going, though, it started to lose momentum. Episodes featuring villains like the Sandman and the Rhino began to fall into a rut.

The changes made to the Green Goblin storyline were more distressing. Do not mistake us: there was a great deal to like in these episodes, but the identity of the original Goblin shifted from Norman Osbourn to his son, Harry. While they managed to tie this nicely to a famous story about Harry's drug addiction, the end result was strained. It was less of a surprise than a disappointment, though we are interested to see where they take the characters next.

Likewise, the ever expanding cast of characters became dizzying as the show went on: is it really necessary, we found ourselves asking, to introduce every major love interest of Peter Parker's life in thirteen episodes? For those keeping track, we counted five contenders for Parker's affections.

Ladies: he's only one arachnid.

The writers were juggling a lot, and we expected them to stumble. But then something magical happened. The last two episodes may have been even stronger than the first, bringing together the most important threads of the season.

The last fourth of the season revolves around the symbiote suit, Eddie Brock, and Venom. Many liberties were taken with this plot line. Brock has been completely reimagined to fit the new show. But, somehow, the changes all worked out for the best. He is more than a friend to Peter at the beginning of the season: they act like brothers. And in Eddie's mind, Peter's the closest thing he has to family. Their parents were killed in the same plane crash, and while Peter was raised by his aunt and uncle, Eddie wasn't so lucky. So when he sees Peter betray him in the third episode, it is taken personally.

The symbiote plays into this divide. It attempts to separate Peter from his friends and family, and, to some extent, it succeeds. In Peter's darkest moment, it is Flash Thompson who confronts him and wakes him up. If you doubts the brilliance of this show, look no further than this scene. Here, Flash Thompson is a well rounded character. What's more, they accomplish this without sacrificing any of what makes him work. The same can said, incidentally, of their portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson, whose hatred of Spider-Man is fueled by a desire to reserve the title "hero" for men like his son.

In the second to last episode, Peter finds himself fighting with the symbiote for control. The symbiote attacks Peter with memories of his darkest hour, when he lost his uncle. But the memories turn against the alien, and a battle rages in Spider-Man's mind. Alone, Spider-Man could not hope to win, but he isn't truly alone: his uncle is with him so long as he remembers. This should have been hokey and melodramatic, and certainly would have been in less capable hands. Here, it works and works well.

Peter is strengthened by his ties, both to his family and to his friends. This is a weapon Eddie Brock does not have, and it is what Peter is later able to use against Venom to win. The season explores the importance of friends and family. Likewise it considers the meaning of responsibility. It is not enough to use your abilities responsibly for the world: Spider-Man needs to realize that he is responsible to his friends, as well.

In his battle as a superhero, Peter has failed in his responsibilities to those closest to him. He realizes this in time to fix his relationships. And none of it could have happened without Flash Thompson.

This incarnation of Spider-Man is only thirteen episodes in. Like all cartoon series, it has been uneven. But we would not hesitate to defend the assertion that it is the best animated portrayal of the web-crawler to date.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Movie Review - The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is something of a cross between The Bourne Identity and King Kong. We certainly hope that you don't misconstrue this as a negative, puny reader, for nothing could be further from the truth. We enjoyed the film greatly, and would quickly recommend it. However it is not what we might have expected, nor should it have been. This, like the film that preceded it, is something of a surprise.

In terms of genre, this is as much a monster movie as a superhero flick. The Hulk is seldom treated like a hero - it's easier to root for the villain during their early encounters. The Hulk, well, he is prone towards smashing things, and, for the purposes of this discussion, people are a type of thing. The soldier who goes after the Hulk, while certainly less than lovable, is relentless, brave, and, well, human. When he acquires super powers, it briefly feels as though he is the hero.

Of course, this is before he grows spikes and starts slaughtering civilians, but that's beside the point.

The Hulk is a creature, a monster. In many ways, as we mentioned above, he reminds us of King Kong from Peter Jackson's (iD&Di: .90) remake. He is a force of nature and a beast with a soul. But he is never safe to be around: if he doesn't decide to kill you, there are plenty of other hazards in his wake.

But then, the Hulk isn't the star of this picture: Banner is. This is his movie first and foremost, and he truly shines as a man carrying a monster inside him. The film gives a very realistic appraisal of his situation and his trials. For example, we feel his pain and his frustration as he seeks out stretchy pants, again and again. It is, perhaps, Shakespearean in its own way.

We would be remiss in failing to mention that Hulk holds up his share of continuity. Banner's story unfolds in the same world as Iron Man's, a fact the movie is more than happy to remind us of.

Yes, this movie is at once a brooding suspense film, an action movie, a comic book story, and an exercise in marketing. For the record, we have waited years for superhero franchises to develop the cohesive continuity of comic book universes. Now that it's here, we couldn't be happier. Perhaps the most notable point about the Incredible Hulk is that it stands on its own while existing in an established movie. The references to Shield, the Super-Soldier program, and Stark Enterprises never feel forced or out of tone. That alone is truly a feat.

If five stars were equal to Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk would no doubt be three and a half. This is well worth your time and money. The second great superhero movie of the year has been released; here's hoping the other three (Hancock, Hellboy 2, and The Dark Knight) fare as well.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Moment Of Reflection

We here in The Middle Room would like to take a moment to remember a friend, taken from us before his time.

Speed Racer, we hardly knew you.

This past weekend, when we visited our local theater, we saw that the flood of new movies has washed away this small, artistic, 100 million dollar production.

After a mere month in theaters, Speed Racer, the single most enjoyable theater going experience we've had this summer - surpassing even Iron Man, mind you (and we loved Iron Man) - has been wrenched away from us. Sure you might still be able to find it playing on a screen here or there, but overall, it is gone.

And it is not coming back. Except on DVD.

There are many factors we might blame for this injustice, not the least of which being critical response. Perhaps we were wrong to expect better from film critics. "Remember the Hudson Hawk," is something of a battle cry in these parts.

Rather than allowing ourselves to become possessed with anger, we feel it would be more constructive to take a moment and focus on the contribution Speed Racer made in bridging the divide between live action and animated films.

We think Speed would have wanted it that way.

First, some history. For as long as anyone can recall, there have been two types of movies: live action and animated, and the line between them was never crossed.

Until recently. Now, Speed Racer was not the first movie to blur the line. Disney was experimenting back in the 60s and 70's with movies such as Mary Poppins and Pete's Dragon, where reality and animation crossed paths.

These were intrusions, really, where one medium crossed over with another. Still, these managed to utilize animation to surreal effect. It was a simple beginning, but a beginning nonetheless.

Things became less clear in 1988. That was year Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released. Roger was a turning point in more ways than one. It marked an end to hand-drawn animation in big budget live action films (sure, there would be others afterward, but nothing so grand), while serving as a harbinger of the CG filled movies to come.

The combination of computer generated imagery and characters along with live action actors and settings became common place in the 90's.

But then something happened: the stakes were raised.

Movies like Sin City, 300, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and Spy Kids 3-D began to test the boundaries between the two worlds by pushing actors further and further into animated environments.

On the other side of the fence, CG animated projects began to incorporate live-action. Movies such as Polar Express, Monster House, and Beowulf have are building towards incorporating an actor's entire performance without having them in the movie at all.

The line between animation and live action grew thinner and thinner.

And then a movie came along that tore through the boundary altogether. A movie so stylized, so bizarre, and so much fun that our very lexicon cannot contain it.

That movie, of course, was Speed Racer. It was not live action, nor is was animated. It was a living collage, a true fusion of the two basic types of film.

And the critics could not understand what they were viewing. They attacked it, because it was too cartoony for their tastes.

And now, too soon, Speed Racer is gone. But it has paved the way for other films to follow. There is no longer a need to make movies either live action or cartoons: the whole spectrum of possibilities has been opened.

As for Speed Racer, we can only trust in our faith that there exists life beyond the theaters. We have to believe in DVD and the possibility it will become a cult favorite and rise from the ashes.

It's a shame, though. It was truly glorious up on the big screen. To those of you who didn't get to see it there, in its natural environment: you have our pity.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The List - RoboCop

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often put off our responsibilities. Such is the case with a list I created months ago outlining a series of movies I had yet to see.

All were films I should have seen years ago, films I feel compelled to see. In some ways, as a geek, these are movies I am required to see.

While four of the five films have continued to elude me - or perhaps I've unwittingly eluded them - I have at long last made headway on the fifth.

At 29 years of age, twenty-one years after its release, I have finally seen Robocop.

I should have seen this years ago, of course, but there is little sense dwelling in the past. I enjoyed the movie overall, though the pacing was perhaps a bit slow at times. Still, there is little doubt why this is a classic. Stop motion is an art form we miss, and it is used well here.

Ask yourself, dear reader, when was the last time you saw robot effects accomplished with stop motion? It's been awhile, hasn't it?

The movie was gloriously violent, of course, but I expected no less from Paul Verhoeven (iD&Di: .44). I would recommend this movie to anyone who hasn't seen it, but such words seem unnecessary: there are few geeks alive, I'd wager, who apply.

So, as I check another film off my list, I think of the movies I've yet to see: Clockwork Orange, Harvey, The Jerk, and Metropolis. Of course, this is but the tip of the iceberg: movies I listed off the top of my head. I didn't even think to include The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet, two classic works of science fiction I've never seen. So let us list them now. The revised list now reads:

Clockwork Orange
Forbidden Planet
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Jerk

Lets get to work.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda

It was not the reviews that drew us to Kung Fu Panda, though it met the criteria we laid down. Likewise, it certainly wasn't the trailers, which failed to do the movie justice. What finally made a difference, in fact, was the weather, which surpassed 90 here in the city. In such circumstances there is inherent value in an air-conditioned theater.

Which brings us to our main critique: movies, at today's prices, should be longer than 88 minutes. Really, ten dollars should buy at least two hours respite from the heat.

Also, they could have used the time to develop several supporting characters, who were the truly fascinating aspects of the film, yet were only given a few minutes of screen time.

Still, there are far worse complaints we might wield at a summer movie than noting it was too short.

We consider it high praise to say that despite the distractions - of which there were many: this was a children's movie, and it attracted screeching preteens like flies to a corpse - we enjoyed the movie. It is difficult to imagine someone truly disliking Kung Fu Panda, as it is intrinsically likable. From the design to the voice cast to the action, this was solid film making.

But make no mistake: this was not a Pixar production. While good, it fell short of greatness. It was intelligent, and it made few serious errors, but it never shattered expectations or transcended its limitations. Were the ending stronger and the supporting characters better developed, we might suggest Panda had approached the level of Pixar. As it is, only Monster House has come closer, but there is still a chasm between the films made by Pixar and those that are not. One day, perhaps, a studio may close the gap. But that day is not yet here.

If you are only going to see one animated movie this summer, wait for Wall*E. But, if you enjoy animation as much as we do, then this is well worth your time and money. Even at a measly hour and a half.

On a scale from one to five stars, where five stars is Transformers: The Movie (the 1986 animated version), then we feel comfortable giving Kung Fu Panda three and a half. Fifteen more minutes of air-conditioned, brightly colored kung fu bliss would have bought it another half star.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Fourth Edition

A special sort of person reads this site, and we expect that many such readers are well aware that Wizards of the Coast has updated Dungeons & Dragons for today's short-attention-span, video game playing, adolescent male audience.

Yes, D&D has buried the third edition, and resurrected a fourth. Jack Kirby, we presume, would be so proud.

If we didn't have a copy, if we didn't have an opinion, then this certainly would not be The Middle Room.

Of course, while this is supposedly the fourth edition, our count differs. By our reckoning, this is at the very least the FIFTH edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The discrepancy originates with the shift from Second Edition ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons to Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons. By discarding the distinction between "Advanced" and "regular" Dungeons & Dragons, they ought to have admitted an additional edition, since, technically, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition was really a second edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

But, as is so often the case, we have digressed from our topic.

In the interest of full disclosure, we must admit that while we've begun studying the vast tome than is the Fourth Edition of The Player's Handbook, we are far from fully comprehending all its secrets.

And that is as it should be. We are not here to review this book for you, to tell you whether you should purchase it or not (if you've any interest in gaming in the next seven years, your die is already cast, as it were). Rather, we view this as an opportunity for discussion and reflection.

Over the next few days or weeks or months (the future is clouded), we shall explore these pages together and meditate on the game, just as a Eladrin spend four hours in a meditative trance to regain their many powers and healing surges. But perhaps we're jumping ahead of ourselves.

The first thing we realized perusing the Player's Handbook is that, truly, this is a new game. The changes are more pronounced than anything we'd ever imagined. In itself, this is neither good nor bad, but make no mistake, this is no mere illusion but a total alteration, more akin to Polymorph Other than Alter Self (to borrow 2nd Edition terminology).

So jarring were the changes, that at first it seemed that converting from previous editions of D&D to the new system is all but impossible. While we assume there are many web pages offering suggestions on turning 3rd edition characters into 4th, we believe we've already located the most practical option available.

There are new races as well: the core races now include Dragonborn, Tieflings, and Eladrin, while the Gnome and Half-Orc are nowhere to be seen. While we anticipate seeing Half-Orcs in later supplements, we fear that gnomes may be extinct. If so, we suspect, the Dragonborn are to blame.

It should be noted that Dragonborn strike us as notably "dwarfish" in behavior and temperament. On the other hand, some of them can breath fire. We aren't certain why it was decided to give so odd a race a coveted spot in the Player's Handbook. At first glance they strike us as somewhat silly, but time may yet soften our opinion.

Tieflings, who we know from Planescape, are a welcome addition to the core rulebook. While they may not be appropriate for every game, they are quintessentially fun, and a very good fit for the tone of the book.

Eladrin are, more or less, elves. There are not a great number of differences between them and elves themselves (in previous editions, Eladrin were referred to as "high elves," and did not require a separate listing). We are not sure why they required two types of elves, nor do we fully understand why Eladrin are able to teleport once per encounter. But there is much in this book that confuses us.

At a glance, there are things that impress us and things that irritate us. We love that first level wizards are able to survive a mauling by a house cat, for example (an improvement from previous editions). On the other hand, we are discouraged to see that they've turned clerics into... well... D&D clerics, which is to say fighters with priest spells. In previous editions, this was easy to ignore, since priests were separate from clerics, and no one ever played a cleric (they just don't make sense). But priests have gone the way of the gnome, so that option is out.

On some strange level, all of the classes in 4th Edition feel like fighters with magic powers (including fighters, oddly enough). This may turn out to be a good change, though it concerns us. We will try to refrain from judgment, however, until we've completed the book.