Friday, February 27, 2009

Toy Review: Skeleflex Stegosaurus

At one time, we are told, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Often we have wondered what form of governance they ruled through. The Tyrannosaurus Rex, we suspect, occupied a puppet government at best: the true power was most likely wielded by military leaders. We've often suspected the pterosaurs.

No matter, the vast majority of dinosaurs are gone now, save a few on tropical islands here and there, and whether they were killed by a meteor, abducted by space aliens, or simply sunk into the depths of a thousand tar pits, there is little hope for their return.

But, to commemorate the 65,498,322nd anniversary of their fall, a review has been posted in The Clearance Bin celebrating a plastic representation of the bones they left behind. Truly, dinosaur skeletons are the original action figures.

Why, they're even made of fossil fuels.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strange, M.D.

The quality of Marvel's direct-to-dvd features has been less than consistent. Their initial offering - Ultimate Avengers - was fundamentally a mediocre work, though it was not without promise. Unfortunately, their two follow up pictures, Ultimate Avengers 2 and The Invincible Iron Man, were both profoundly disappointing. We expressed our surprise last month when Next Avengers turned out to be a better film than we expected.

There is, however, a missing title from this list: Doctor Strange had fallen between the cracks. Perhaps it was timing: Doctor Strange was released during the summer of 2007, when we had other superhero properties available to view. Or maybe we were too dissatisfied with the poor quality of its predecessors to spend the time or money on yet another attempt by Marvel to challenge DC's domination of animation.

Whatever the reason, we did not see it at the time. And, as time passed, our interest waned further. We'd heard little about the picture, so there seemed little reason to track it down.

There were two factors that caused us to reconsider. The first was the aforementioned "Next Avengers", which, while far from perfect, showed us that Marvel was not incapable of producing a worthwhile animated movie. The second factor was the price tag: we found this for four dollars at Best Buy.

And so it was that we sat down to peruse this picture. What we saw was something of a conundrum: while we enjoyed the film we saw, we are uneasy with it being labeled Doctor Strange.

As a suspenseful supernatural spin on The Matrix, the picture was entirely enjoyable. We found the characters intriguing, particularly some of the minor ones. The story of the main character, which certainly involved elements of Doctor Strange's origin, was likewise enjoyable.

The very notion of devoting an entire movie to Doctor Strange's origin is a questionable one. While characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man are in some ways defined by their back story, Doctor Strange's origin is far less integral. What's more, he is traditionally more of a supporting character than a main one: his role in the comics is often that of a mystic advisor.

The movie removes or changes many of the Doctor's more famous elements: the incantations, for instance, are entirely absent. The result, while still enjoyable, simply did not feel like Doctor Strange.

The pacing was slow, but always engaging. We felt that this film was attempting a similar goal the makers of The Invincible Iron Man reached for. But, while that picture failed, this succeeded.

The picture is rated PG-13, though we are at a loss to explain why. There is little blood shed in the film, no nudity, and the language - at least so far as we remember - does not descend into vulgarity. There is death and violence, but the youth of today is surely desensitized to this sort of thing. Though we doubt many young children have the patience to enjoy this, the content alone does not seem to merit anything beyond a PG. It is our supposition that the rating may owe more to marketing than logic: the target audience for this film is repulsed by weaker ratings.

Even so, fans of animation would be wise to consider this. While fans of Doctor Strange may not recognize what they're watching, skilled direction and pacing have crafted a film that's worth seeing. Though we'd have preferred something more in tune with its source material, we are happy to admit that, once again, we were pleasantly surprised.

This bodes well for the day Hulk Vs. decreases in price.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Step In The Right Direction

Last May, we reflected on news that The Vatican, amid undeniable evidence, was forced to admit that alien life in no way contradicted church teaching.

We suspect our friends at SF Gospel were overjoyed.

Now, science has followed suit, admitting that, according to complex computer models, the existence of extraterrestrial life is all but a certainty.

While some questions remain, we in The Middle Room have analyzed the conclusions in great detail. Given the evidence presented, there is little doubt that life exists beyond our tiny planet. If you'd like to independently verify these findings, software nearly identical to that used in the study is readily available online.

Surely this is a step in the right direction, but there is more work to be done. We've only scratched the surface of the deeper scientific questions that are raised. The existence of extraterrestrial life may fast be becoming a foregone conclusion, but there remains a great number of scientific theories in need of refutation before the possibility of Kryptonians can be admitted.

And that, dear reader, is surely the most noble goal of science.

Of course, there exists the possibility of other universes, but to us that seems a cheat. While we enjoy the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, it leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

No, better if Superman can exist in our world. He can exist in others as well, but this, we'd like to hope, is Earth 1.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Toy Review: Plasma Dragons Booster Packs

We have little explanation for the picture above, nor for their review in The Clearance Bin. All we can offer is this: these small plastic figures, while simplistic, are a fraction the cost of metal miniatures.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Toy Review: Cyclops and Elf

The Clearance Bin has recently posted a review of a Nightmare Before Christmas figure which has not been in production for several years. We offer no explanation for why this has occurred.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The Wolverine: Origins movie is one that fascinates us. It is something of a wish come true, but, as we learned from watching Coraline, it is often advisable to be careful what you wish for.

The impetus for this discussion comes from the recent release of previews, now available all over the internet. Do you want a link? Very well, you can find it here. Or, should you prefer, it can also be located here. Or, we suspect, most anywhere.

Yes, it is hard to throw a stone anywhere on the internet without hitting a trailer for Wolverine: Origins. That it is difficult to throw a stone at all in a digital landscape is beside the point, and we'll thank you not to bring it up.

What fascinates us is the degree to which the movie seems to be mirroring the history of Wolverine comics. This isn't to say it looks particularly accurate to the storyline: on the contrary, they seem to be taking the usual liberties. No, it is rather another quality altogether the movie has remained true to, and that is the absurdly inconsistent calibre of the storytelling.

We do not condemn the makers of this movie for including elements from Origin, perhaps the most anticlimactic story ever told in comic form. Rather, we celebrate their willingness to include not merely the good elements of Wolverine's character, but the bad ones, as well. It looks to be a patchwork of Logan's uneven history, and this intrigues us.

Those who have spent time in The Middle Room are no doubt aware of our affinity for movies that walk the thin line between brilliance and stupidity. It is a difficult path to tread and those that do so, such as The Chronicles of Riddick, earn our undying affection.

We'd of course have preferred a great film celebrating the elements of Wolverine that were crafted with thought, focusing on Weapon X and perhaps rewriting the absurd origin that was added seven years ago.

But it is our contention that a Wolverine movie - ANY Wolverine movie - is better than none. And, at the very least, they seem to have included the Weapon X storyline. Will this be a good movie? Who cares? The twelve year old in us all is already excited.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dolls and Dollhouses

We can hardly broach the subject of a show called "Dollhouse" without first referring you to the most recent toy review in The Clearance Bin. Strictly speaking, these are not dolls but rather "action figures," though the distinction, we feel is entirely semantic. Those of us who play with dolls would be better off admitting the fact, rather than hide behind petty technicalities.

Last Friday, Joss Whedon (iD&Di: .97), creator of Buffy, Firefly, and (more recently) Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, premiered his newest project, Dollhouse, to an eager world.

The internet, of course, was abuzz.

There are few who command the level of fanatic loyalty that Whedon has. And, we would add, such a fan base exists with good reason. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is easily one of the most significant modern superhero creations, overshadowing even the Powerpuff Girls in its influence. While not every episode of Buffy was equally brilliant, both it and its spin-off, Angel, stand as shining examples of what television can accomplish.

Firefly, if anything, went even further. Offering an innovative approach to an old conceit, its early cancellation stands as the pinnacle of errors.

There is little need to delve in depth on Dr. Horrible once more. If you've an interest, simply look to our initial review here, along with our follow-up look at the dvd.

Indeed, there can be little debate that Joss Whedon is capable of genius. But does Dollhouse live up to his previous work?

The answer, at least for now, is no. Presumably hoping to expand his range, Whedon has abandoned the humor of his earlier shows, relying instead on a starker tone. While we applaud the attempt, the result has a generic feel. There is no shortage of Science Fiction programs on television these days: we've yet to see what makes Dollhouse stand above.

Our reactions were not entirely negative, though. The pilot for Dollhouse revealed a philosophical depth that is unusual for network television. This isn't to say it delves deeper into its ideas than anything we've ever seen, but it does more than pay lip service to the compelling issues of identity and memory.

But philosophy alone will not carry a show. If Dollhouse does not find a hook to catch our attention, it is unlikely we will remain with the program.

The problem, we fear, is that the show will become trapped by its own premise. The concept relies on a constant string of memory wipes, which will no doubt grow old over time.

We wholly expect that the formula of the show will change over time. In fact, it is our considered opinion that Whedon has never had an intention to maintain the status quo. That Echo, our tabula rasa, will begin retaining some of her memories is more or less a given. But we anticipate larger changes.

There's a wide supporting cast with implied backgrounds and histories of their own - are there memories implanted, like the main character's?

Will Echo regain control of her destiny? Will she run from the Dollhouse? Or will she instead reach a point where she chooses to download memories to access knowledge and skills (with Whedon, it is never a safe bet that superheroics won't develop)?

But, ultimately, will any of this matter? Shows that begin with an episodic formula face a troublesome dilemma. If they continue to follow their formula, they will stagnate. But, should they deviate, they may well lose the element that attracted viewers.

Still, we've enough faith in Whedon to give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll keep watching for a while, at least. We have never been led astray by Joss before: we've every intention of giving him ample opportunity to impress us once more.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Translated Man

Author and frequent visitor to The Middle Room, Chris Braak, has recently published his first novel. It was our sincere intent to offer a review of this book once we'd finished reading it.

However, no sooner had we concluded the novel than we discovered a review had just been posted here. We were somewhat dismayed to discover that it encapsulated our opinions as well as we could ever hope to, leaving us in the awkward position of merely reiterating what has already been said.

Therefore, what follows will be more a reflection that a review.

The Translated Man is, indeed, an excellent read, blending elements of science fiction, horror, and adventure into an intriguing story. What truly shines here are the descriptions of the world, which takes on a great deal of depth.

The first chapter is a bit awkward, but stick with it and you'll be well rewarded. It quickly evolves into a fascinating and intriguing detective story. That the story happens to unfold on a world that blends elements of Lovecraftian horror with nineteenth century science fiction and horror only enhances the novel.

While we have little to add to what has already been said, we find ourselves driven to offer an opinion as to the genre this book belongs in. The setting is unique. It shares common ground with steam punk, of course, but such similarities strike us as superficial: beneath the surface, this is another creature entirely. In terms of elements, The Translated Man could almost be seen as a distant cousin to Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, though the tone could hardly be more different.

We've heard it called many things, but we have taken to classifying it under the heading of "phlogiston punk". To our knowledge, there are no other works of phlogiston punk in existence, a fact that's easy to forget as the setting is so well developed it feels, at times, that it's been evolving for centuries. The Translated Man is a dizzyingly inventive book.

If you are interested, it can be ordered here in print or digital form.

Toy Review: Abe Sapien

Lovecraftian horrors, we admit, have something of a bad reputation, but we in The Middle Room tend to keep an open mind.

Later today, we will share some reflections about a work of fiction which delves into the darker regions of forbidden knowledge, and while madness indeed dwells therein, one also finds a great deal of entertainment.

But that, as we said, is later.

For now, we would like to highlight the third figure in what's become something of a trinity: Hellboy, Liz Sherman, and, at last, Abe Sapien. He bares more than a passing resemblance, we must confess, to the Old Ones, the dwellers below who bow to a forgotten god who dreams even in death, and will one day waken and rise, hungry, to set upon the world and return it to his followers.

But we seem to have lost ourselves in a digression.

Abe, unlike the majority of amphibious humanoids who appear in print and film, is a gentle soul. He enjoys a good book - or four good books would be even better - as well as long walks on (and beneath) the beach.

Abe Sapien reminds us that one should not judge a book by cover, regardless of whether than cover is made of flesh or scales or a partially translucent membrane. It is our sincere hope that the next time a subterranean eldritch monstrosity crawls forth from the depths before your very eyes, you will take the time to verify that it has indeed come to devour your flesh BEFORE you flee screaming in terror.

It could simply be a lost soul looking for a friend.

With this in mind, we refer you to The Clearance Bin, where you'll find a review of an articulated plastic representation of Abe Sapien. We have heard others call such a thing, "an action figure."

We leave such semantics in your capable hands.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Faster than a Speeding Racer

Aint It Cool News has begun circulating a rumor that the Wachowski Brothers (iD&Di: .78/.79) may direct a trilogy relaunching Superman.

Were this rumor told to us a year ago, we'd have responded with skepticism. The effect The Matrix had on superhero films has hardly been a positive one: while we've a great deal of respect and affection for Bryan Singer's (iD&Di: .43) X-Men films, we felt they were held back by the unexpected success of The Matrix. It is not too controversial a suggestion, we think, to wonder if the costume choices made in the first X-Men were somewhat inspired by The Matrix.

The Matrix has had a similar effect on superhero films that Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns had on comics in the late eighties. There is something of an expectation now that genre films should be dark. The success of last summer's The Dark Knight most likely did not help this situation.

For this reason, a year ago we'd have been wary of the Wachowskis approaching the Man of Steel. But a great deal can happen in a year. For instance, last summer we saw Speed Racer.

There is no need to reiterate our appreciation for this film; indeed, those interested have only to review our review.

It isn't the quality of Speed Racer that brings us comfort, nor is it merely the idea that the Wachowskis are able to find support for their films following Speed Racer's underwhelming performance.

What seems apropos is the tone of Speed Racer. This isn't to say that it would make a good tone for a Superman film: nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the lesson is that the Wachowskis are not merely capable of, but in fact proficient at, faithfully adopting a project they are adapting.

Even those who have failed to recognize the brilliance of Speed Racer - and we are through mincing words: this is indeed a failure of the critics, not the movie - cannot deny that the tone of the movie was a fantastic representation of the original.

While The Matrix was dark and technocratic, Speed Racer was bright and flashy. It was, as we've remarked before, a perfect merger between live action and animation.

Filmmakers with the versatility to work with properties as divergent as The Matrix and Speed Racer, in our humble opinion, would be well suited to revisit Superman.

In essence, the Wachowskis may be capable of crafting a Superman franchise that truly captures the tone of the character.

We just hope this doesn't suck, like The Matrix: Reloaded.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


CNN has recently made us aware of a movement which is occurring elsewhere on the internet.

Existing, as we do, on the very same internet, it is surprising that we failed to notice this forming. But, then again, considering the size and scope of the World Wide Web (or the Information Superhighway), there are many corners and crevices for such things to spread. From our windows in The Middle Room, we see many things in the digital sea that stretches before us. But all seeing, we are not.

Those of you who have clicked on the link embedded in the first paragraph already know what is happening and may wish to skip the remainder of this paragraph. For the benefit of those of you with less trigger-happy mouse fingers, we will explain: a group is circulating a petition asking that The Joker be omitted from future Batman films. The argument, in its simplest form, is twofold: that Ledger's Joker cannot possibly be bested and that retiring the character would serve as a sign of respect.

We respectfully disagree, not merely with the content of these arguments, but the very perspective that has unleashed them. Whether Ledger's performance can be topped is irrelevant: comic movies exist in a tradition, and there are better metrics than these. The assumption that there is a single Joker which Ledger captures is a mistake. The Joker, as a character, is fluid, evolving. And Ledger is one of many - actors, writers, artists, editors... the list goes on - to have aided in this process.

It seems unlikely, for example, that an actor will ever surpass Christopher Reeve's performance as Superman, but the character lives on. Brandon Routh certainly didn't surpass Reeve in Superman Returns (an underrated film, by the way), but he did honor the legacy. In fact, the movie served as a celebration, rather than a competition. Other versions of Superman have deviated, of course, but the influence Reeve has had endures. his performance gave us more than a few good movies and a few bad ones: he is now part of Superman.

Ledger's performance was good enough, we feel, to leave a similar mark on the character of the Joker. Years from now, we hope to be able to see elements of his work in future interpretations. That, we believe, will better honor Ledger's legacy than petty competition.

Let the Joker live on, we say, and Ledger's memory will live on with it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Toy Review: Killer Moth

Today we celebrate a villain. Not just any villain, mind you, but perhaps the least capable, least effective villain in all the DC Universe.

We refer, of course, to Killer Moth, who, we are told, is the inspiration for Mothman's name.

He is not especially smart, nor especially brave. His costume does not instill fear in his enemies. Were he engaged in a fight with Arthur from The Tick, we would place our money on Arthur and consider our funds secure.

But, no matter what he is not, there is something that cannot be taken from him: he is now immortalized as an action figure.

And that toy has now been reviewed in The Clearance Bin.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Movie Review: Coraline

There are movies which defy classification, where comparison is all but impossible and we must struggle to find an analogy. But from the moment we heard it was in production, there was little question that Coraline would one day be held alongside Nightmare Before Christmas, for better or worse.

Indeed, while Tim Burton (iD&Di: .33) is oft associated with the holiday classic, it is Henry Selick (iD&Di: .37) who sat in the director's chair. And now, many years later, Selick has returned to direct another stop-motion picture.

In the meantime, Burton himself attempted to recreate the wonder of Nightmare. A few years ago, he released The Corpse Bride, a modest offering which amused us even as it left us disappointed. While there was nothing wrong with The Corpse Bride, it fundamentally failed to live up to our expectations.

There was some debate, in fact, whether Coraline would suffer the same fate.

We are pleased to tell you, however, that where Burton failed, Selick has succeeded. Coraline is a fascinating movie which engaged us at every moment. It is a rare film; one best enjoyed in three-dimensions, if you've an opportunity to experience it in such a form.

This is a true joy to behold: fantasy at its best. There are moments of rapture and beauty that invoke awe, and there are moments of horror that will make you shiver. And all of these flow together with the precision and care of great art. Never is the pacing rushed, but never does Coraline fail to captivate.

What surprised us most was the intended audience. Despite all our expectations, we can now say that Coraline was, in fact, a movie meant for children.

Of course, there was a time when all animated pictures were meant for the eyes of children. And, we suspect, outside The Middle Room, many still believe this to be the case. But those of us who follow the trends and pay attention are well aware that films have taken a darker turn. While any Pixar movie is accessible to children, they are not who the movie is made for.

But, for all its darkness and all its horror - and indeed, there is a great deal of each - Coraline is a movie which addresses its younger viewers directly. It is a movie made for children and accessible to adults, an odd twist on filmmaking in this post-Shrek world.

Yes, Coraline speaks to the children watching, but it talks to them as if they were adults.

We will return to Nightmare Before Christmas, but first we'd like to mention a few other pictures we considered as we thought about Coraline and discussed it in depth. We found certain portions reminiscent of a version of Alice crafted by a Czech filmmaker we viewed years ago, for instance. In particular, the thin line between dolls and taxidermy seemed inspired by Alice.

But the movie most relevant - besides, of course, Nightmare Before Christmas, is perhaps Monster House, an underappreciated picture we were likewise able to enjoy in three dimensions. Both Monster House and Coraline incorporated elements of horror films into a children's story while remaining approachable for young viewers.

But Monster House, for all its charm, was nowhere near as inventive or intriguing as Coraline. Coraline is a masterpiece of animation, with wonders at every turn.

And all the while, it retains a sense of dread. Oh, yes: this is a frightening movie, and we expect it will terrify some of its viewers. But then some of us were children when The Secret of Nimh was released, and any trauma we experienced only left us stronger.

The tone of Coraline is controlled with the precision of a master, as is the movement and design. This is a movie well worth seeking out.

No film is without flaws, though, and this has a few. The most severe being the film's conclusion, which tries to walk a tightrope between family friendly and horror, and, in the end, cannot find a satisfying finale. But then this is not a movie which relies on its closing moments; this is an experience.

And, for the first time in a few years, we wonder if Pixar will be able to claim the Academy Award. Of course we await the release of Up this summer to find out, but Coraline offers true competition: something Pixar has long been without.

Yet, in the long term, it is not Pixar Coraline will need to contend with. No, fans will hold it against Nightmare Before Christmas, and we expect many will find it lacking. For all its merits, Coraline is a more personal story, and the fanbase - at least in our experience - will favor the operatic qualities of Nightmare.

But that is not a problem with the picture at all. The Nightmare Before Christmas will remain one of our favorite movies, a five star example of what stop motion can do with a dark fantasy.
We hold Coraline beside it, however, and do not find it wanting.

For the first time, The Middle Room is pleased to bestow a five star rating on a film. Go see Coraline now. And see it in 3D.

Toy Review: Skeleflex

Just the other day we were discussing the impact of the undead on current events. In our ongoing endeavor to stay on topic, we now draw your attention to the dead in a manner that's more palpable to children.

We refer to Skeleflex, a series of building sets with which one can produce skeletal monstrosities. A review can be viewed in The Clearance Bin.

In addition, you may want to visit The Middle Room again before long. Sometime tonight we will post a review of Coraline. When exactly? Not even we can say for sure.

As a preview, though, we'll say this: it was good. Very good, indeed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bring Out Your Dead

It is rare that indeed that the mundane news of the world outside finds its way into The Middle Room. Truly, the interests of the geek are, by and large, above the petty concerns that trouble the twenty-four hour cable news channels and antiquated newspapers filling the subways and streets.

But, as is often the case with rules, there exist exceptions. One area of overlapping concern is the undead, which pose a real threat to geek and human alike.

Of course, we in The Middle Room pride ourselves with knowing the weaknesses of any such affronts to creation's laws we are likely to meet. However, when a situation appears involving creatures from beyond the grave, we sit up and take note, particularly when reported by the Associated Press.

In this situation, road signs have been illegally accessed, so their warning messages could be altered to inform riders of the walking dead.

Of course, law enforcement is concerned that the altered signs could present a safety risk. There is a real danger that a driver, distracted by the message, could cause an accident - potentially even a fatal one.

In such a scenario, the deceased could rise as a zombie themselves, and wander the highways in search of food. Lacking the basic capacity for reasoning possessed by the living, the undead can create an even more dangerous distraction.

Of course, were this to occur, we can take some solace that there would at least be warning signs present, albeit something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In other news pertaining to the undead, Stephen King has recently been criticized for comments he's made about the author of Twilight.

We in The Middle Room would like to join the chorus of voices condemning King's off-the-cuff remarks. From what we've heard, the books are far, far worse than he lets on: to suggest that the author can't write "worth a darn" leaves open the possibility that there is some, albeit small, value to this fad.

We strongly encourage King, in the future, to use harsher language regarding this brand of tripe drivel being spoon-fed to teens.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Toy Review: Liz Sherman

Another Wednesday is upon us, and the week is halfway done. In The Middle Room we mark such occasion with a toy review; this time of Liz Sherman from the movie Hellboy II.