Sunday, April 26, 2009

Movie Review: Monsters Vs. Aliens

Despite their best attempts, Dreamworks animation has once again failed to ruin a good movie. Yes, the company which produced Kung Fu Panda has made another flawed movie I enjoyed despite its many problems.

There are, by my count, three factors which make the movie work. First, there is the 3D, which is stunningly effective. This is an evolving format, but we've finally grown lungs and crawled out of the ocean: the movie has a believable depth that delivers a worthwhile experience.

Second, there are the characters. Much to my shock, I found myself liking every single monster in the film - including Insectosaurus, who I expected to hate. A lot of thought went into each character, both in terms of paying homage to the old movies that inspired them and in making them interesting, unique, likable, and fun.

But none of them topped Susan, who really carries the film. Her reactions, while not necessarily realistic, always feel genuine. The movie works because her character works: it's really as simple as that.

Finally, the action is, for the most part, exciting. While never approaching the intensity of Pixar, the fight and chase scenes are more than adequate. Dreamworks is learning in these areas, and I commend them for it.

But, as I said from the start, there were many, many problems. Or, from another perspective, there was one problem which never went away. Oh yes, there is a beast that Dreamworks has yet to tame, and its name is Slapstick.

Whenever Stephen Colbert (iD&Di: 1.0) appears, the movie falters. This shocked me, because I generally enjoy his antics. What's more, I considered his casting particularly inspired when I first heard. But I hadn't realized then the degree to which he was purely comic relief. He is not alone in this regard, either. Other characters who are generally well handled are occasionally used to deliver jokes that shatter the tone and fall flat. Likewise, while they are nowhere near as widespread as some other movies, there is the occasional pop culture reference which makes any genre fan roll their eyes.

In the future, Dreamworks should ask their directors whether they are making a movie or a parody. Those who respond with the latter should be fired at the least. More severe punishment, including incarceration, would not be uncalled for. And whoever believed Monsters Vs. Aliens needed a "Dance Dance Revolution" should be forced to re-watch Fox's 2003 film, Robots. It may constitute a form of torture, but it is the only way to ensure they never try something similar again.

Scaled against The Incredibles, I'll generously give Monsters Vs. Aliens three stars. Overall, this is no better nor worse than Kung Fu Panda. It's good fun, but it's no Pixar.

I imagine it would lose a great deal of its charm if seen without the benefit of 3D glasses, so I suggest those of you who've yet to see it do so soon. It is, for all its flaws, a nice little picture. And, when it's not trying too hard, it's actually quite funny.

Labyrinth: an 80's Fairytale

I am of the considered opinion there are few films which have aged as well as Labyrinth.

This is not an opinion I've always held: as a child, I was at best ambivalent towards the picture. As I grew older, my feelings did not immediately improve. It is, after all, an easy film to criticize, particularly when compared to the more consistent Dark Crystal. While Dark Crystal maintains a constant tone and story, Labyrinth feels disjointed. Some scenes feel almost as if they're in a different movie.

There can be little debate that Labyrinth is a dated picture. Aside from the inclusion of David Bowie (iD&Di: .42), the movie is full of visual and auditory cues, from the animated owl in the opening credits to the soft-focus shot of the heroine at the end.

In addition, it is in some ways an incomplete picture. From interviews, I've learned there was supposed to be a great deal of back story tying the main character's absent mother to the play she reads during the opening, and none of it is in the final product (unless you count some sparse photos and theatrical reviews spread out on Sarah's dresser).

For years, these things grated on me, as did the euphoric absurdity of the ending, when Sarah summons her Muppet friends into her room for a final dance number.

But, as the eighties have drifted farther and farther away, it is as though the flaws have faded. Upon reviewing, I can find few aspects I could imagine differently.

The reason for this disparity is simple: while I once tried watching Labyrinth as a flawed fantasy, it now seems like a perfect 80's fairytale. From the casting to the techniques, this movie reminds us of everything we loved about the decade.

The lack of exposition matters less in hindsight: if anything, I find myself celebrating the movie's brisk pacing and imaginative settings and characters. Disjointed moments, such as the ballroom dance in a crystal ball, only enhance the strange dreamlike feel.

And, finally, the conclusion of Labyrinth has taken on new meaning in the past few years. I've heard it pointed out that the ending works as a parody of the finale of many similar works: Christopher Robin left Pooh, Dorothy left Oz, and so on. Many have noted that Labyrinth deserves credit for, if nothing else, rejecting this tradition.

But I find Sarah's final act more fascinating still. The eighties, we've seen, have refused to fade into obscurity. Properties such as the Transformers, GI Joe, and Care Bears have demonstrated a staying power that earlier children's programing did not.

Watching Labyrinth, I can't help but reflect on this. Christopher Robin left the Hundred Acre Wood because he was expected to grow up. In the course of Labyrinth, Sarah grows up as well, but, when the time comes, she refuses to set aside the things she loves.

In essence, she is willing to act like an adult, but unwilling to set aside childish things. That strikes me as a very appropriate description of the generation of toy-collecting, movie watching kids who grew up in the eighties.

While I still love Dark Crystal, I must admit that I find myself watching Labyrinth far more often. It may not rise above the era it comes from, but there are plenty of other movies which achieve that. No, this is a celebration of the 1980's; a fairytale dreamed up in a time of puppetry and pop music.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rise of the Machines

I find it difficult to categorize the following news item. While it exists somewhat beyond the usual scope of The Middle Room's mission statement, it struck me that my readers would probably like to know that the Germans have begun construction of mecha-penguins.

As to their creators' motivation, that remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the world is enriched by such fascinating creations, even if their final intent is sinister by design.

Versions exist which operate in the water and in the air. I've yet to see evidence that variants have been crafted which can belly-slide down hills of ice, but such modifications seem simple enough.

Images of flying penguin-bots brings to mind zeppelins patrolling the skies. And yet, can anyone truly look on these creations without admiring the whimsical design?

Of course, if these constructions do have dark intentions, surely no human agent could find it in their heart to combat them. What spy, no matter how cold-hearted, could ever harm a penguin?

Might we then suggest another alternative to keep our world safe?

Future Market 2009, Part II: June

In case you missed our last installment, we are looking ahead to the films of the summer in an attempt - however futile - to set a benchmark for our attendance.

If you have missed our previous post, fear not: there is still time. Merely scroll down a few posts beneath this and you shall find our previous discussion intact, for this is the internet, where nothing is truly lost. If scrolling is too much of a bother, we will make things easier still: behold, a link, to the first part of our series.

But the way back, we fear, is a path you shall need to discover on your own.

At any rate, we have concluded our look at the month of May, and we turn now to June. We ought to mention the dates were found on We really should have mentioned it before, but better late than never.

June 5: Land of the Lost
Estimated Tomatometer: 77%
Minimum Tomatometer: 85%
This is a difficult film to predict. We were ambivalent when we first heard of the project, though Will Ferrell (iD&Di: .53) has surprised us before. The previews we've seen have done little to make up our mind: for every moment of comic brilliance, there is something that fails to inspire confidence. More than with most films, we find ourselves anticipating listening to the critics' response. Had we paid attention when Elf came out, we wouldn't have missed it theatrically. But, in a summer so teeming with films, we need to set high expectations.

June 12: Dead Snow
Estimated Tomatometer: 79%
Minimum Tomatometer: 88%
Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead are inevitable, but we find it hard to believe any other zombie comedy could truly rise to so high a level. While we find ourselves ecstatic about the premise - Nazi zombies are an inspired concept, though we have seen these before. Still, with the level of competition over our time and money, it will need to be great cinema indeed to justify a trip to the theater. Otherwise, we may merely wait for the DVD.

June 19: $9.99
Estimated Tomatometer: 85%
Minimum Tomatometer: 88%
We feel a need to offer some addendums to the above: first, our estimate is based on little. We've seen the fascinating preview for this film, though, and it looks like something that critics might enjoy. It also appears to be something we may find worthwhile. We expect that our minimum will count for little here, however: this is the sort of movie we will most likely see or skip on the advice of friends.

June 19: Year One
Estimated Tomatometer: 65%
Minimum Tomatometer: 85%
Comedy has become something of a lost art form. But there is a great deal here to interest us: it is directed by Harold Ramis (iD&Di: .39), starring Jack Black (iD&Di: .66), and seems like an Old Testament version of Monty Python's Life of Brian.

June 24: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Estimated Tomatometer: 50%
Minimum Tomatometer: 35%
We offer no apology for our love of the first film: those who lack an appreciation of giant robots will find little agreement here in The Middle Room. We expect this to be a bad movie - at least by conventional standards - and, in a way, look forward to that. Only if the reviews and word of mouth are abysmal would we consider skipping this picture. Even then, we will give the matter thought.

Last year it took three parts to conclude this list: this time we'll be lucky to escape after four. Next time, we shall contemplate the month of July and the films which inhabit it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Yo Joe

In case you haven't seen this yet, Cartoon Network has begun airing a series of GI Joe shorts entitled "Resolute." The first two episodes can be found on the Adult Swim website, and the third is available on Youtube. I can only describe the experience it presents as surreal. These are the characters you'll recall from your childhood.

But they will not all survive the series. In fact, more than ten million people die in the first episode.

Keep in mind these are less than six minutes each. I'll let you do the math on that yourself.

GI Joe was many things, but it was never dark. Seeing Duke and the gang dealing with the deaths of millions is an odd experience, to say the least. But somehow, by the third episode, it began feeling like GI Joe. While I was never as attached to GI Joe as I was to Transformers, it is metaphysically impossible to have grown up in the eighties without some nostalgia towards the property.

So, here's hoping it's able to maintain a serious tone without losing all the fun of the original. And lets hope the upcoming movie can do the same.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Matrix Re-something

Ten years have passed since the world was asked to consider a notion so strange and world-altering that it forever changed the way we view cinema. The notion was this: that Keanu Reeves was a brilliant computer hacker.

To convey this idea, the Wachowski Brothers utilized a relatively formulaic retelling of Plato's Cave allegory: an idea often explored in the realm of science fiction.

To commemorate this anniversary, I recently sat down and watched the entire trilogy, as well as The Animatrix. If my typing is less than coherent, it is because I have just completed watching the last two films back-to-back, and my head has not yet cleared. By my estimation, I expect to be back to normal by 2013. 2014 at the absolute latest.

No film I've seen and discussed has caused me more trouble than The Matrix. The names I was called in conversations about this film are simply not printable - this is, after all, a blog intended for a family audience.

There was little sympathy in the circles I traveled for one who did not like The Matrix. The true irony, though, is that I didn't dislike The Matrix: I was merely critical of it. And, on re-watching, my criticisms remain intact.

The largest problem I had with The Matrix in 1999 was that it was a far inferior film to Blade in all respects. Despite a far higher budget (and better technology) the action in The Matrix was relatively dull to watch. It had its moments, of course, but against the action scenes of Blade, there can be no real comparison.

The real disappointment, however, was that it wasn't nearly as smart as Blade. I realize this is a controversial point, but having seen both movies several times, I feel the position is defensible. The Matrix boils down to a cookie-cutter application of the Plato's most overused idea. There are some other ideas, slipped in through supporting characters (everyone in that movie seems to say something about the nature of reality or humanity), but these tend towards the simplistic.

Blade, on the other hand, is a surprisingly layered film. The transition from reality to comic book absurdity is gradual, as the movie evolves from horror to fantasy. Many of the minor characters have implied backgrounds and personalities. Granted, the screenwriter reused most of these tricks in Batman Begins, but there is little reason in criticizing an author for making the same wise choices twice.

This isn't to say that The Matrix was a loss: far from it. It was fun science fiction which played with philosophy. But it was far from great.

Then came the sequel. As I've said, I'd spent years arguing against The Matrix's following. There is nothing that irritates a geek more than an overrated picture, and the situation seemed clear. But, as the trailers were released and early rumors began to appear, I grew hopeful. There was reason to suspect that where the first film disappointed, the second might excel.

I swear to you - SWEAR - that I took no satisfaction as I walked out of the theater after viewing The Matrix: Reloaded. Never before, and I hope never again, have I ever been so sad to win an argument.

The strangest part was that one of my main criticisms was addressed. It is seldom said, but, for all its faults, the second Matrix film is surprisingly intelligent. Gone is the simplistic dichotomy between good humans and evil machines: the computers behind The Matrix are complex. Gnosticism, only suggested in passing in the original, becomes a foundation of the world, and Neo's discussion with The Architect is surprisingly fascinating.

And yet, the movie ranks as one of the least interesting I've seen in years. The first forty minutes or so is painful to sit through: the speech and subsequent dance scene are downright awful. When the fight scenes do start, most are dull. The first fight between Neo and three dozen copies of Smith should be required viewing for all perspective film composers and editors: if any of them actually enjoy the experience, they should be shown the door. The battle is far less engrossing than the meeting with the Oracle which precedes it.

The movie improves a bit with the introduction of the "supernatural" villains and the fights which ensue. While these could have been better, they actually managed to lend a degree of excitement to the movie. I'd have been happier if some of the werewolves had actually turned into wolves. Still, the ghosts were cool.

The end is fairly straightforward: once Neo has saved Trinity, he's poisoned by Sheelob, taken by a kraken, then sold to Jabba the Hutt. At this point, I'm not sure whether such conventions are intended as cliffhangers or merely as a way to waste the first thirty minutes of the next film.

Which brings us to The Matrix: Revolutions. When I saw this in the theater, I recall enjoying it far more than part two. At the time, the absurdity of the thing felt fun. While I'd had high expectations going into Reloaded, they'd been safely lowered by the time the conclusion came out.

On reviewing, I had considerably less fun, though there were still moments I enjoyed. While part two was trying for dramatics, the last Matrix film seemed to go for something more operatic. The death of Trinity still stands as one of the most unintentionally hilarious in film history, as though the Wachowskis felt bad about killing her... again... so they offered comedy as a consolation prize.

I don't know whether it's her five-minute monotone speech or the wiggling pipes that have impaled her, but I can't watch her die with a straight face. Hardly the ending I'd have envisioned for the most interesting character in the trilogy.

The battle for Zion is another example of technical mastery being wasted. The lack of emotional involvement, along with the ridiculous CG men in suits, makes it fall flat. While the waves of robotic squid are visually pretty, the best parts wind up feeling like a good screen saver; the worst, like a bad video game.

Of course, their pain and suffering is more or less for nothing: soldiers have no impact on their own fate. No, it's their savior, Neo, who makes the real choices. His battle with Smith is one we enjoy in spite of its excesses - or perhaps because of them. Does it feel like two Kryptonians pounding on each other? Sure. But why is that a bad thing?

In the end, a bunch of characters I don't care about celebrate their survival in their post-apocalyptic underground lair. Trinity and Neo have died, but they've ensured that the Wesley Crusher lookalike can live a rich and fulfilling life collecting mold spores or whatever these people do.

I actually have some sympathy for the problem the Wachowskis faced: wrapping up a trilogy isn't easy. On one hand, they didn't want to create a "Return of the Jedi", which has often been criticised for being overly happy (personally, I like Jedi, but that's me). They wanted something final, something epic, so they offed two of their three characters.

The real problem is that I found myself no longer caring about the third. Morpheus was extremely cool in the first film, and even helped salvage the second (he should always have had a katana). But as his faith began to waiver, he lost his intrigue. Morpheus was not improved by his weaknesses.

The Matrix seemed extremely important when it came out: for years, movies were expected to follow its lead. Still, there are things to like about these movies.

But I still say none of them are anywhere near as good as Blade.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Final Respects

Thirteen months have passed since Gary Gygax shuffled off this mortal coil. All men, we know, are mortal, all hit points transitory. Gygax was a great man, but no one, no matter how great, could have created Dungeons & Dragons alone: it took two. And it is with a heavy heart that must now report the passing of David Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons.

These men were pillars of modern geekdom; forgers of dice and rollers, too. They were philosophers, too, for they knew the secrets of the icosahedron, and of the other Platonic solids.

We have called on the church to recognize such men, though our cries have gone unanswered. We bring this up as a reminder, nothing more: there will be time for harsh words later. This is a time for sorrow.

Both creators of Dungeons & Dragons have passed into the realm that Peter Pan once called "an awfully big adventure." If it is truly so, we hope the wandering monsters they meet on the way leave them great troves of treasure, items of immense power, and numerous experience points.

This world, however, is poorer for their absence.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Mask Considered

We can remain silent no longer. Recently, the issue of identity, as pertaining to Batman and Superman, has resurfaced as a point of debate across the internet. Both SF Gospel and Threat Quality Press have engaged the issue, and now io9 has offered their thoughts, as well.

The conclusions they come to are more or less the same. Batman, they say, is the true personality, while Bruce Wayne is a mask. And, likewise, that Clark Kent is real, while Superman is a disguise worn by a farm boy with exceptional powers.

The arguments presented at all three of these sites are strong and have been well thought out. Yet, ultimately, it is our opinion that all have missed the point.

They've chosen select stories, and mistook specific versions of these characters for broad rules.

The question of true identity is not meant to have one answer. Different stories will provide different points of view, and this is as it should be. Because, if every writer had approached these characters the same way, some of the best superhero stories written would never have come to fruition.

Let us begin with Batman, since his comic book was first.

Surely there are stories where Batman is the dominant personality: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns jumps immediately to mind, of course. Other writers, before and since, have also approached Batman in this manner. It is somewhat poetic, of course, to say that Bruce Wayne is the mask. As far as we know the convention was started by Denny O'Neil in the seventies, where he played with the idea that, to protect his secret identity, Bruce Wayne needed to act cowardly and spoiled: it's important to note this was originally an idea Batman found frightening, not empowering.

And, in doses, this version can lead to interesting stories. In larger quantities, however, there are problems which develop. If Bruce Wayne is truly an illusion, who is Batman avenging? The Waynes were Bruce's parents; if Batman has truly disassociated from Wayne, wouldn't his connection to Bruce's parents have been severed, as well?

The story, "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne," by Alan Brennert, takes another approach. In it, an elderly Bruce Wayne recounts the story of how he revealed his identity to Catwoman and eventually married her. This story is interesting, as it begins with a version of Batman who has "lost" Bruce Wayne: in essence, where it seems that Batman is the true identity. Exposed to the Scarecrow's fear gas, Batman's allies and loved ones began to vanish from his sight, leaving him alone. This, we discover, is Batman's greatest fear: that his new family will be taken from him just as his parents were. Frightened, he teams up with Catwoman, who convinces him to remove the mask:

I found and captured the Scarecrow, of course... but more important... that night I found Bruce Wayne.
It is beautiful story, and we recommend it to anyone, particularly those who still insist that Bruce Wayne should never be more than a mask.

There are other versions of the character, of course. One of our favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series showcases a more complex adaptation. "Old Wounds" reveals the falling out between Batman and the original Robin. Sensing that he's losing an ally, Batman brings Batgirl into his world, in effect stealing his son's girlfriend. It would be easy to mistake this as a case of Batman being the true persona, but the truth is far more devious. The episode shows how he uses both Bruce Wayne and Batman as masks, manipulating everyone - possibly even himself - towards ends we can only grasp at. This version of Batman is not a character at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, he's a setting for other characters.

In old versions of the character, the Superman persona seems to have been dominant, with Clark Kent being a tool to fit in. But this presents something of a logic problem: unlike Batman, there is no real reason Superman needs to be Clark Kent at all. Why not fake his death and become Superman full time?

To answer this, most writers agree that, at the very least, being Kent is something Superman enjoys or needs. Many take it a step further, declaring that Clark Kent is who Superman "really" is. After all, he was raised by human parents in Kansas: isn't this how he thinks of himself?

In "Superman: For All Seasons," Jeph Loeb utilizes a version of Superman who really is Clark Kent. No matter what powers and abilities he has, he is really a Kansas farm boy at heart. What's more; that's all he wants to be. Lex Luthor is the one who wants to be a savior and God.

Since the Silver Age, there have been few Superman stories which have portrayed Clark as wanting more than the simple life. However, the question should not be what Superman wants, but what he is. And, in The Dark Knight Returns, Clark Kent is a memory. Here, Superman is THE Superman, the Nietzschean ideal. He has come to realize that the Kents were wrong to see him as human: that, for better or worse he is more than that.

Another extreme is Grant Morrison's All Star Superman, where we see a version existing as a religious figure. He is, ultimately, a god, who exists to do good. Whether he wants to be Clark Kent or not is immaterial: as he nears the end of his life, his desire to do good takes over, and he becomes a God.

Many of the greatest Superman stories have considered this transition between man and god. In Superman: The Movie, we see Clark Kent embrace his destiny as a savior. In Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, we see a god choose to become a man at the end.

Our all time favorite portrayal of the character, however, was on Justice League Unlimited, which showed Superman on the edge of losing his humanity. A series of horrors unleashed by Lex Luthor, culminating in the presumed death of a friend, brought Superman to the point where he seemed ready to kill his adversary. Through the use of multiple universes, such a version of Superman had appeared before. But, when the moment came, Superman realized that he wasn't a man who could kill, though he was so angry he wished he could.

In the end, there is reason to believe that it is the ambiguity of identity that may ultimately define these characters. To demand one answer diminishes the question. There is room in these mythologies for multiple points of view. We are fans of The Dark Knight Returns, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Adam West, the animated DC Universe, The Dark Knight, and countless other tales. The world we be poorer, we believe, if any of these were versions were ignored.

And we must therefore differ with our friends at Threat Quality Press, SF Gospel, io9, and anyone else who believes these characters should be limited. To reduce Batman or Superman to a single portrayal sacrifices the richness of their mythologies.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Futures Market 2009, Part I: May

It is, once more, April, a month of rain and dark clouds. But do not despair, dear reader, for April showers bring May blockbusters.

Indeed, the summer begins early this year: May 1st. And this year, the number of films on the horizon surpass even the quantity of last, though, in truth, there are fewer that provide the same intensity of interest we felt a year ago. This year offers but two large comic superhero properties, one of which has already seen release and the other shall appear on the first of May. By our reckoning, this about a third of what we received last year. In exchange, we've a series of sequels, science fiction, fantasy, and cartoon adaptations. In one summer, we shall see a Transformers and GI Joe movie.

But, like the world outside, we in The Middle Room know the pain of economic downturn: while there are many films we'd like to see, we expect many will need to be sacrificed.

Fortunately, we have already devised a system for predicting our attendance; a system modeled on the markets, themselves. And, like the markets, they proved unstable and flawed.

Had we trusted our gauge, we might have skipped Speed Racer, and this would have been tragic indeed. Oh, we anticipated error: our system is founded on the collective opinion of film critics, and this is a poor basis. A castle built in a swamp cannot stand unless it is rebuilt three more times.

This, dear reader, is one of those times.

Let us review the system in all its limited glory: Each film of interest is given a minimum rating it will need to achieve on Rotten Tomatoes. This rating is far from fair: it is based on our initial interest in the property, as well as our likelihood to overlook the critical response. It is not connected to how the movie is expected to be received.

We never promised a fair Universe.

However, because we are not incapable of learning, we add this; that we shall keep our eyes open for movies which are scoffed at by a majority of critics, but which win the love - not indifference, but LOVE - of those who remain. This describes movies like Speed Racer, and we one day hope to develop a numerical model for detecting these films.

For now, we shall need to rely on our instincts; a shame, because they are hardly as foolproof as pure mathematics. Still, this is an issue we shall need to address when films are released. We are also adding in an added feature: a estimate of how we believe the movie will be met. This serves no useful purpose, but we feel our readers deserve the opportunity to gloat when it's revealed that we're wrong.

Let us begin with the month of May:

May 1: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Estimated Tomatometer: 62%
Minimum Tomatometer: 35%
It is becoming a tradition, of a sort, to begin the summer with a big-budget production based on a Marvel character. While our expectations for this movie are less than high, we find ourselves excited by its arrival, nonetheless. It strikes us as highly unlikely that this will surpass the quality of March's Watchmen, we hope to enjoy it nonetheless. Our estimate presumes that this be better received than X-Men 3, but will fail to impress the critics - or anyone else for that matter - to the extent of X-Men 2.

May 1: The Battle for Terra
Estimated Tomatometer: 71%
Minimum Tomatometer: 88%
This is a movie that has interested us for some time now, though the form of that interest remains primarily academic. This is an animated picture looking at a dark future where the last survivors of the human race attempt to save their species by exterminating the intelligent life of another world. The trailer can be found here. In essence, this is War of the Worlds, but we are the Martians. While the premise intrigues us, the trailer belabors these ideas in a manner that was more succinctly delivered in the Belgian UNICEF add where the Smurfs met an unfortunate end. Nonetheless, there is enough about the animation that impresses, and if the critics can assure us that the movie isn't overly preachy, perhaps we'll be willing to see two movies this weekend. Our estimate of the critics' reaction here is based on no science, whatsoever: this reflects our gut reaction and nothing more. We'll be as surprised as you if it turns out to be close.

May 8: Star Trek
Estimated Tomatometer: 77%
Minimum Tomatometer: 55%
Our expectations for this movie are high: J.J. Abrams (iD&Di: .53) has long interested us as a director. The images we've seen of his take on Star Trek reveal a deep respect for the source material, as well. While we wish that the design was a bit less reminiscent of the iPod and Wii-mote, we are still happy he managed to keep as much of the original look as he did. It would take a high degree of critical disappointment to keep us from the theater when this is released. To estimate this film, we remembered Mission: Impossible III, where J.J. Abrams left critics pleasantly surprised. We expect him to do even better this time, and we will not be entirely shocked if we find our estimate low.

May 21: Terminator: Salvation
Estimated Tomatometer: 80%
Minimum Tomatometer: 60%
Everything we've seen from McG's (iD&Di: .50) installment of the Terminator franchise fills us with hope. The post apocalyptic wasteland seen only in fragments in the original films now appears complete, and we are eager to see it. While McG has never been the favorite choice for this project, we believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt. The first Charlie's Angels movie was worth seeing, even if the second was a disappointment. Our estimate will likely be viewed by some as optimistic, but we hope it proves conservative.

May 29: Drag Me to Hell
Estimated Tomatometer: 65%
Minimum Tomatometer: 90%
This is a touchy subject, here in The Middle Room. With the exception of Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi (iD&Di: .83) has seldom let us down. And, from what we've heard, his upcoming horror film is supposed to be a triumph of the genre. And yet, look back on the movies we've already discussed. May has three movies representing major geek franchises, and, as we'll discuss in a moment, this movie does not have the weekend to itself. It is with a heavy heart that we need to admit the odds we will see this are not high. Only if it truly seems to be a picture of unparalleled brilliance, will we likely head back to the theater.

May 29: Up
Estimated Tomatometer: 94%
Minimum Tomatometer: 40%
It is difficult to remember why we were uninterested in Monsters, Inc. when it was released in theaters - the character designs suggested it was more kid-friendly than we were interested in, perhaps - but it was a decision we wound up regretting. When we finally got around to the DVD, we made a solemn oath to never again miss a Pixar film's theatrical run.

In The Middle Room, we are relatively serious about such oaths. More or less.

But money is short, the summer is long, and there are many movies we want to see. So, in the unlikely event the movie fails to impress, we could, conceivably, skip it.

Still, applying a minimum rating to a Pixar movie is an exercise in futility: these films have a tendency to excel. While the aesthetics of Up are less appealing to us than those of their previous films, we must admit that we've greatly enjoyed the comedy and tone of the previews we've seen.

And it doesn't hurt that the director is the same one who directed Monsters, Inc. We estimate the critical response will be equal to that film, by the way. Not a particularly inspired metric, we confess, but we expect a fairly accurate one.

This ends the first installment of our series. Next, we move into the month of June and the strange films that come with it.