Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Does Whatever a Spider Can

It is, perhaps, human nature to tear down heroes, to seek their flaws and weaknesses and exploit them. But here in The Middle Room we strive to be better. We would rather take a more positive perspective and celebrate the accomplishments of our protectors.

It is in this spirit that we are pleased to inform you the BBC is now reporting that Spiderman saved a child trapped in a burning building in Bangkok.

To our knowledge, J. Jonah Jameson has yet to comment.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bat Shot Into Space; Return Possible

The media is a mysterious force, one whose attention is often ephemeral. We regard them as we would a class of children: with amusement, caution, and most of all with fear. In the span of a heartbeat, the press has been known to go feral and attack without provocation.

A pack of reporters could pick a cow's skeleton clean in under ten seconds. This is not hyperbole: there was a time we watched a great deal of CNN. We have, in fact, observed just this.

Recently, the press's attention has meandered to an unlikely story representing a strange interjection of geek interests. According to multiple news sources, a bat has recently been launched into space. The details, at present, are few. Indeed, the story evokes more questions than it answers.

If we are to believe the media's claims, the bat in question (unnamed at present; presumably because its family has yet to be notified), made the journey of its own volition.

Video and photographic evidence seems to verify this story, though the possibly that some sort of adhesive may have been a factor has yet to be addressed.

As to why the bat made this leap; well, that is a question the media seems uninterested in confronting. Nor have they confronted the possibility that the bat may return from the stars.

Before we continue, there are a few things we would like to say. First of all, we in The Middle Room have long campaigned for bats to receive the recognition they deserve. As a symbol of the night, they invoke a certain terror in the superstitious and cowardly, but they also perform invaluable services to the ecosystem around us.

They hunt insects and they aid in the expansion of plant life. They inspire horror and superheroes alike. Truly, the loss of even one bat is nothing short of a travesty.

But there is no conclusive evidence at present that this creature is gone. Rather, scientists have long known of the existence of "cosmic radiation", a mysterious energy source with unknown properties. Could this radiation transform a common bat into a being of infinite power and hatred?

We cannot say for sure.

We suspect that the bloodthirsty media has reason to believe this may occur. After all, this story is being closely watched and scrutinized. It seems unlikely that so many reporters would spend such time were it only a case of a single animal killed by a launching shuttle.

Such attention is never paid to the dozens of rats, mice, and insects we assume are killed when the rockets ignite. But then, there is little reason to think they would gain the superpowers which could be bestowed upon a creature exposed to cosmic radiation.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

It is odd that Warner Bros. has yet to produce a live action Wonder Woman movie. Batman and Superman have each enjoyed a successful franchise: why not Wonder Woman?

Perhaps we know the answer.

Wonder Woman, on her own, is a difficult character to manage. In fact, an argument could well be made that she is simply not a very good character.

Certainly, there is a fascinating dynamic existing between her and her teammates on the Justice League. She is one of the three pillars of the DC Universe, and, as a representation of mythology and fantasy, she is an integral part of the setting.

But without the League, she is a difficult character to manage. She was created as a metaphor for a very specific ideology; a bizarre version of feminism that cannot be reconciled with either the movement of the 60's, nor its successors. Her creator, a psychologist of some significance, envisioned a world where men yielded power to women in exchange for being able to objectify their superiors (hence the costume - the lasso is a topic for another day).

His beliefs were more complicated, of course, but this simplification serves to illustrate the problems that arise when the character is updated. When she is not on the Justice League, it is difficult for the character to be taken seriously.

As a solution, the new direct-to-DVD Wonder Woman does not take itself seriously, at all. Fundamentally, for all the action and fantasy elements, this is a romantic comedy. The writers abandoned her power of flight, instead relying on a more mortal version of the character.

The result was a surprisingly enjoyable, though at times baffling, picture.

This isn't to say the violence was badly used: in fact, at times, it exceeded our expectations. The planning for these fights was superbly done, as was the animation. The lack of blood, however, struck us as a weakness. This was particularly surprising given the thought put into the battles, themselves. While there was some blood, it was a rare sight. It's not that we demand gore in all cases, but characters were impaled - complete with blades protruding from their bodies - without a drop of blood. Considering the effort made to highlight the film's PG-13 rating, this struck us as somewhat cowardly. We find ourselves wondering if the studio might have stepped in at the last minute and "adjusted" the film. We know for a fact they've done this before.

Likewise, the fights had consistency issues. Wonder Woman's strength, speed, and resistance to damage in one scene had no correlation to the next. At times, she was wounded as though she were human, while others portrayed her as nearly invulnerable.

While we were pleased by most of the voice casting work, it was Nathan Fillion (iD&Di: .89) who truly carried the movie. His cowboy delivery of Steve Trevor's dialogue elevated the jokes to a level of genius.

It was not without flaws, however. The antagonist, Ares, underwhelmed. Despite excellent voice casting and layered motivation connected to the death of his son, his story seemed rushed and his design - particularly when it changed near the end - was uninteresting. Ares never created a sense of dread in the viewer; indeed, Hades's short cameo accomplished this to better effect. The problem may simply have been that the relationship between Diana and Steve overshadowed everything else.

The theme of the movie also had an obnoxious tendency of butting in when it wasn't welcome. In an effort to retain some link to the character's origin, the scenario was recast as a metaphor for communication between men and women. While we appreciate the idea behind this, the execution felt forced and awkward. Interrupting a battle scene, for instance, with a line of pop psychology was not the film's high point. Still, enough of these moments were played for comic effect that the damage was minimal.

Overall, this was an enjoyable film. Under the leadership of Bruce Timm, Warner Bros. has mastered the art of producing these direct-to-dvd animated films. While it fails to match the brilliance of New Frontier, this is highly entertaining.

On a scale between one and five stars, where five stars represents The Incredibles, we feel Wonder Woman deserves three and a half. It's a worthy addition to any geek's animation collection.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Toy Review: The Flash

We are in something of a hurry today, pun not intended, so we'll keep this short. A review of The Flash has appeared in The Clearance Bin. You are invited to take a look.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Who Reviews the Reviewers?

We in The Middle Room have long tolerated the ravings of madmen, while slowly our patience eroded. There are, in this world, many reviewers of films deserving of their careers and paychecks. But, as we've learned all to well, such are the minority.

Watchmen represents an intriguing case, however: the majority of those who have viewed the film seem to have enjoyed it, at least if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed.

But not all have responded favorably. Very well, there is room for dissent and disagreement, particularly in this scenario. While our overall impression of the film was positive, we did not feel it was entirely consistent. We've friends who liked it and others who did not. There are valid reasons one might have for disliking Watchmen, and we can respect such viewpoints.

But this does not mean all viewpoints are valid. Indeed, were all opinions equal, there would be no justification for the existence of film critics, at all.

Which brings us to Anthony Lane, film critic for The New Yorker.

It is with some hesitation that we single out this one reviewer: there are, of course, others as bad or worse. He came to our attention by chance; nothing more. But something about his review rubbed us the wrong way. Perhaps it was his superior tone or empty rhetoric. Or it may have been the factual errors he presented.

But, whatever the reason, we have decided that Lane has hidden behind the mask of his publisher long enough: his review should - nay, must - be examined.

In the interest of uncompromising truth, his review must be reviewed.

If you are interested in viewing the article in question, it is found easily enough. Be warned, however, that like the film it examines, it is not for the faint of heart. The review begins simply enough:
The world of the graphic novel is a curious one. For every masterwork, such as “Persepolis” or “Maus,” there seem to be shelves of cod mythology and rainy dystopias, patrolled by rock-jawed heroes and their melon-breasted sidekicks.
Already, we of geek sensibilities are given reason to pause. As we read this passage, it seems to us to imply that superhero comics, by their very nature, can never measure up to the greatest works of graphic literature. Lane is at odds now, not merely with geeks, but also with much of the literary community: Watchmen is often cited as a work of literature, one of the greatest graphic novels ever drawn and written.

Still, there are - though it pains us to admit it - those who dislike the superhero genre. As in all things, there is room in this world for many points of view. However, are we wrong in asking why anyone would be allowed to review a movie so embedded in a genre they have no respect for?

It is not merely the genre and story Lane shows a lack of respect. He goes on to mock the author of Watchmen, who had nothing to do with the film, at all:
One lord of the genre is a glowering, hairy Englishman named Alan Moore, the coauthor of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “V for Vendetta.”
This passage troubles us. While it may seem a trivial observation, the claim Moore coauthored these works is patently false: Alan Moore is the sole author of both, as well as Watchmen. The term "co-creator" is used in comics to give proper due to the artist, who shapes the world and characters in these stories. This is no trivial distinction: The New Yorker, we believe, should do more to edit their articles.

Watchmen, it seems, particularly troubles this insipid reporter. The very idea of crafting a movie with so many characters in spandex appears to confuse Lane:
As far as superheroes go, two’s company but three or more is a drag, with no single character likely to secure our attention: just ask the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, or the half-dozen Watchmen we get here.
Of course, those of us familiar with the genre suffer no such difficulties. One wonders whether Lane complains as much about all movies with an ensemble cast. Is it really more difficult to keep track of characters wearing capes than those without? Or is it only that Lane finds his attention drifting due to a personal preference?

Again, we find ourselves wondering why a man with no interest in a genre is reviewing that genre.

But the depths to which Lane will sink have yet to be fully explored. He continues, almost boasting about his ignorance:
Last and hugest is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker. Whether his fellow-Watchmen have true superpowers, as opposed to a pathological bent for fisticuffs, I never quite worked out, but this guy is the real deal.
Doctor Manhattan is, in fact, the only character to have true superpowers. This information is readily available to anyone who reads the graphic novel. If Lane truly has no interest in doing so, the answer to this question could also be located online or, we would wager, by asking one of the assistants at The New Yorker, or perhaps someone who works in their mail room.

We suspect that someone could be found easily enough who has actually read and paid attention to the comic, and they could no doubt have verified this information.

They would also have been infinitely more qualified to write a review of Watchman.

The superhero is an American literary legacy which has influenced a great deal of art, literature, and film worldwide. A critic who is incapable of approaching this genre has no business reviewing it - just as we have no business reviewing High School Musical 3, a film Anthony Lane seems to have found more palatable.

In contrast, Roger Ebert has also reviewed Watchmen. You can find links to two reflections he's written here. Like Lane, he appears unfamiliar with the comic, but the similarities end there. Approaching the film with an open mind, he is intrigued by its world and characters. While he may not know more about superheroes than other reviewers, he shows the genre the same respect he'd show any other. And, because of this, Ebert is deserving of ours.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Toy Review: Barbie Speed Racer

A review of dolls now graces the Clearance Bin. We offer no apology for this: there is little merit, we think, in denying the obvious.

Yes, there are times we play with dolls. And, yes, we are comfortable admitting this.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen

In The Middle Room, we take pride in our reviews. In particular, we are proud that you will not see puns littering our discussion. While we may, from time to time, sink to the such levels in our choice of photos, such comedy ends there.

Likewise, we make it a point to avoid spoilers whenever possible: a movie's plot, we feel, is something the audience should be able to experience for themselves. We see no point in inflating our word count by including a synopsis.

We've brought this up not to boast, but to apologize in advance. Due to the nature of Watchmen, we feel a thorough discussion cannot commence without touching upon the similarities and contrasts between the original work and the adaptation.

Rest assured, however, our boycott of cheap puns shall not be broken.

So, if you've yet to read the comic or see the picture, you may want to stop reading at the close of this paragraph. In the interest of aiding such readers, we will simplify matters for you: if you are able to handle the violence and brutality of the film, Watchmen is a unique, fascinating experience. It is highly recommended viewing, though we need to stress it is not a film for children or the squeamish.

To those who were hoping to be surprised by the conclusion of this review, you also have our heartfelt apologies. Regardless, consider yourselves warned: from here on out, spoilers may appear.

For those of us who are fans of the comic, the very idea of an adaptation boggles the mind. Watchmen is no simple story: it is layered and complex, and it resists simplification. It is important to note that Watchmen, itself, is something of an adaptation: the characters are derived from the heroes of Charlton Comics, purchased in the 80's by DC Comics, then offered to Alan Moore for use in his experiments. Even on the screen, we could see elements of Blue Beetle and The Question in the characters portrayed; a positive sign in our opinion.

The omission of the psychic alien squid from the final chapters is a subject the internet has had months to reflect on. Zack Snyder (iD&Di: .73) has made no secret of this sacrifice, and there has been a great deal of criticism as a result. While the squid's landing remains one of our favorite sequences from the comic, we in The Middle Room do not condemn the director for this choice. In fact, the replacement was handled with such care and thought, we found ourselves commending the decision.

Unfortunately, the scenes around it were not so fortunate. We appreciate that there was a great deal of studio interference, but the final scenes in and around the arctic stronghold of Ozymandias felt rushed. As the director seemed to try and fit as many lines and ideas from the book as possible, the studio seemed to demand a final showdown in which Night Owl explains the flaw in the villain's plan. The result was disjointed and awkward. The comic concluded these interactions by having the other characters yield the moral high ground to Ozymandias. That he'd lost his soul trying to save the world was a revelation for the audience, not the characters, to make. The attempt to explain this directly felt pedantic. It was as though the studio was too scared to leave the viewer in moral uncertainty, so instead they forced a ethical confrontation that defeated the entire point.

As a whole, similar issues plagued much of the movie. Lines were simplified; ideas dumbed down for a wider audience. At the same time, so much was left intact, we suspect those who have yet to read the comic will be lost.

But, make no mistake, the sum of the movie's parts proved greater than the whole. While the entire story could not be adapted perfectly, there was more here to like than we would expect to find in a dozen movies.

Let us start with issue #4, the chapter in which Doctor Manhattan's origin is told outside the boundaries of time. In SF Gospel, Gabriel McKee declares this portion of Watchmen is better than the whole. While we will leave such debate for another time, we gladly admit the chapter is one of our favorites. And, much to our surprise, it was retained nearly in its entirety. This alone represents one of the most impressive adaptations of a work of graphic literature for the screen, and is well worth the price of admission.

The design and set work likewise represent a rare achievement, recreating a fictional world in startling depth and detail. While Watchmen can be compared to many recent films, the most apropos may be Forrest Gump. Watchmen explores a world full of historic figures and events existing beside superheroes and villains. The film blends the real and surreal together into a product that feels entirely organic. From the war room of President Nixon to the nest of Night Owl, there is a startling sense that everything fits together naturally. When Dark Knight received a great deal of attention last summer, we noted that there was something missing. Had Dark Knight incorporated this mixture of comic book elements with a real-world sensibility, it would have succeeded on a level greater than anything we've seen in live action.

The fight scenes likewise left us amazed. These are superhero physics, shown in their entirety. Reality is abandoned from the start, and good riddance: what we see here is the first true recreation of superhuman ability. When these characters move, they do so with more force and determination than exists in this world.

Be warned, however, the consequences of these blows are taken seriously. Truly, this is a brutal film: far more so than the source material, in fact. These are characters who can shatter stone with a punch; bone fares no better. This is a story about the abuse of power, and little is withheld. There are scenes that make Fight Club feel like Tom and Jerry: do not take children to see this movie.

A lot of the comic was omitted or handled so fast it no longer felt like Watchmen. But, for all its faults, it is impossible not to at least respect what was accomplished. The reason the comic works as well as it does is simple: for all the lip service paid to it being a "realistic" appraisal of superheroes existing in our world, the comic really isn't embarrassed at all about the genre and its excesses. It may feel more organic than most comics, but it isn't any more realistic.

This movie left in the depth of comic book absurdity, but never did it fail to take the setting and characters seriously. For that, Zack Snyder has earned our applause. Did he truly succeed in adapting Watchmen as a motion picture? Perhaps not: there is simply too much to capture a film of any reasonable length.

But, as an exploration of the dark side of superheroes, of power without oversight and limit, the film is a complete success. While the comic proved too much to adapt, the film truly succeeds in honoring its themes. What's more, it manages to adapt the concept of a superhero to a degree we've not yet seen in a live action picture.

First and foremost, this was a historical picture. That it charted a fictitious history rather than a real one does not change this fact. Therefore, we will compare it against Forrest Gump, and we find it lacking cohesion and consistency. But there are moments of such brilliance and thought that we can't bare to rate it harshly.

We give Watchmen four stars to Gump's five, though we may someday look back and reassess. We are particularly intrigued by the possibility of an extended edition or director's cut. While the squid may be gone for good, there is a great deal of tuning that could be done to correct many of the movie's problems, particularly if the picture is permitted to run longer. And we cannot help but suspect more footage may have been shot than that which appears.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

25 Years of Animation, Part 1: Exo Squad

The marvels of modern technology seldom surprise us. Here in The Middle Room, we've devices the world is not yet prepared to face, machines designed to tear open the fabric of space and time, allowing us to perceive the world in myriad ways the non-geek has never dreamed of.

We state this not to boast, but rather to offer context: we are not impressed by simple engineering. No, to gain our interest, more must be offered. The internet, to win our approval, must improve our lives.

And so it has. Hulu, a simple web-based television service, has apparently secured the rights to Exo Squad, one of the most underrated television programs of the past thousand years. While many of us remembered the show from when it was originally aired, we'd not seen it in some time. Since there was little guarantee that it would remain available for all eternity, we felt it prudent to view the second season in its entirety now, rather than have to rely on time travel later.

Having done so, we felt it important to share some reflections.

We begin, as we must, with a description for the uninformed. Exo Squad was an animated science fiction series running for two seasons in the 90's. While the animation was conventional, the writing was not: this is easily the best military science fiction we have ever seen broadcast on American television.

As is widely reported, Exo Squad is largely inspired by Japanese animation. Recent marketing has even dubbed it the "American Anime," and there is a kernel of truth to this claim. However, we find such analysis incomplete: there are many influences that shaped this program, and not all are Japanese.

Echoes of science fiction from the 1950s and before permeate this show, as do questions of morality and identity. But where the show truly shines is in its portrayal of war.

Imagine GI Joe, if not every shot missed. Imagine marines being dropped in pods from a space ship, with enemies vaporizing them before they hit the ground.

And imagine the deaths being acknowledged. This is what makes Exo Squad unique among American animation or, for that matter, almost any kind of American television.

In Star Trek, for instance, when a character appears for a single episode, wearing (more often than not) a red shirt, and dies, the tragedy elicits an initial response - usually anger - which is forgotten as quickly as their name.

In the first season of Exo Squad, a character appears for a single episode. In fact, she does not survive a scene. She has been newly assigned to the squad, and, due to a combination of equipment failure and inexperience, she dies trying to enter Earth's atmosphere.

The team takes a second to mourn her, reflecting on the fact they never even learned her name. The lieutenant, who's never lost a soldier in his command before, is traumatized. He tells them her name, then continues with the mission.

But he can't forget her. He places a picture of her in his E-Frame. It stays there through the entire series.

This leaves an impression of war that most shows never touch. Rather than glaze over the horrors of battle, Exo Squad showcases loss. Most shows, live action and animated alike, would rather portray war as something glamorous, paying nothing more than lip service to lost friends and family. This is something different, something serious.

And it was all in the interest of selling toys.

Herein lies the fascinating juxtaposition of Exo Squad. In a show with phenomenal writing and storytelling, with developed characters and plot lines, you can actually see how the toys are intended to function.

The missiles extend beyond the guns, allowing them to mirror perfectly the action figures they're meant to represent. One can look at the designs and imagine the spring just out of view.

Just as Transformers used to introduce new characters for the purpose of selling new toys, Exo Squad introduces new genetic monstrosities - many with laughably absurd designs - in hopes of marketing action figures.

But the explanations for these additions are always well thought out; the episodes themselves are often brilliant. The stories are developed with such care, you will find a giant blue man with bee wings terrifying.

If you've some time to kill, the series is currently available on Hulu. A DVD set containing the first season will also be released next month, but, for now at least, this content is available free of charge.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Toy Review: Star Wars Galactic Heroes

In our estimation, there are two explanations for a geek who claims they do not like the design of Star Wars Galactic Heroes: either they are a liar, or they are not truly a geek at all. These, we believe, were designed to fascinate the geek in all of us, and surely they succeed.

A review exists in The Clearance Bin even now. But you already knew that, didn't you?