Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who Reviews the Reviewers: Up

The last time I discussed reviewers, it was in response to Watchmen, which was far less universally celebrated than Pixar's Up. At the time, I was less than charitable towards Anthony Lane, who dismissed a film he clearly had no business reviewing. If I was harsh, I apologize: it is only that I lack tolerance for hacks. Clearly, the fault is mine.

A glance at Rotten Tomatoes reveals that Up, at present, has gained the approval of 98% of its reviewers, or 147 out of 150. Whenever I see statistics like these, I find myself wondering about the two percent who disagree. I thought it might be interesting to investigate further.

The first of these is Stephanie Zacharek, whose review can be found on Salon. Her primary issue with Up seems to be the lack of an artist's fingerprint; a human touch perhaps. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this complaint: in truth, it's a factor that did occur to me while watching the movie. I omitted mentioning this in my review, because I honestly don't consider it a flaw. In fact, I believe it to be a total absence of flaws: the price of perfection is a lack of idiosyncrasies. It's a trade off as far I'm concerned; nothing more. Overall, though, her review seems less than damning. While I suspect she's being a little hard on Pixar because of the company's stature, the review isn't unreasonable, and she makes some fascinating points.

Next, we turn to Joe Morgenstern, who reviewed Up for The Wall Street Journal. Once again, we have a review that's more mixed than outright negative. Morgenstern, like most who saw the film, was enamored by the opening montage. He also goes on to celebrate the movie's score, a point I applaud him for. As the review continues, he comes to the elements that didn't work, and they outnumber what he liked. The first thing he complains about is the character of Russell, who he found cloying. Personally, I enjoyed the character, but I can certainly understand where Morgenstern is coming from.

The traditional cartoon tropes, such as the large bird, bothered him as well. I can't fault someone for particulars of taste, but I found it odd that he described these as "creatures who wouldn't be out of place in a routine Disney feature...." It's a minor point, but I interpreted these - as well as the surreal backgrounds and strange stone formations - to be a tip of the hat to the old Warner Bros. Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Morgenstern at one point complained that the movie felt like "a collection of lovely storyboards that coalesced incompletely or not at all." I wonder if the movie may have coalesced better had he considered the settings and characters under a different light.

But, while my experience differed, I found both of the above reviews intelligent and probing. The same, I fear, cannot be said for the last. Armond White, writing for the New York Press, offers more commentary than review. His attacks are disjointed and convoluted: he lashes out against the American automobile industry, Pixar, and - at one point - J.J. Abrams, director of Star Trek.

It is difficult to distill a point from White's ramblings, but he seems to be implying that Pixar is stealing ideas from classic films, simplifying them, then contributing to some sort of cultural conformity. Such attacks, while impeccably phrased, are hollow and without substance. White relies on metaphor rather than logic, and his "review" is an incoherent mess. His attempts to symbolically connect Pixar and its audience to the military industrial complex and "men who buy cars for phallic symbols" causes the reader to wonder if White bothered to think such things through in the least. I sincerely doubt that Pixar's films are contributing to either phenomenon: if anything, they've offered critiques of materialism and consumerism far more nuanced and intelligent than White's review.

There is room for disagreement, but I have little respect for faux intellectualism or meaningless drivel. As the first two reviews demonstrated, there are intelligent ways to offer a different opinion. White's diatribe isn't one of them.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Movie Review: Up

Honestly, I wonder what it must be like for employees of Fox Animation or Dreamworks to watch a Pixar movie. I suspect it must be difficult. Perhaps they don't go at all. Or maybe, they run home, eyes still wet with tears, to - once again - send Pixar their resumés.

Before I begin the actual review, I should mention that I opted to see Up in 2D, rather than wait an extra hour for the 3D presentation. I may elect to see it a second time in the alternate format, but for now I'll be considering the two dimensional presentation.

A while back, I estimated that Up would impress ninety-four percent of film critics, a prediction which is close to accurate. At present, it's obtained a rating of ninety-eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no sense in bragging about this, however, as only one Pixar movie currently resides below ninety, and that's Cars.

It likewise seems somewhat passé to state that I liked Up, or even that I loved it. It is a Pixar film, and Pixar produces exclusively good movies. Let us move on.

The first observation I would make is this: of all the films they've made, Up may provide the clearest example of what Pixar is. Indeed, Up feels more akin to Pixar's animated shorts than it does to any of the company's previous full length films. The movie, in a way, distills the essence of Pixar. And, apparently, Pixar is a blend of Tex Avery and Miyazaki, served with a slice of classic adventure.

Pixar is, in short, a factory of dramatic whimsy, and Up is their latest creation.

In terms of their previous films, it should be classified with their smaller, more personal stories, such as Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille. While there may be epic qualities to these pictures, the stakes - and, for the most part, the dangers - are lower than what you've seen in Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and The Incredibles.

Likewise, Up feels fundamentally contained. There are relatively few settings. In the trailers, you've doubtlessly seen the large bird, the talking dog, two old men, one boy, a house, some balloons, and a dirigible. These are, more or less, the sum total of elements to the picture. But from these disjointed concepts, Pixars has crafted a strikingly touching movie.

There are numerous qualities which make Up work as well as it does. The characters are, without exception, fantastic, as is the voice acting. Stylistically, this is the most cartoony picture Pixar has made; in terms of the emotional engagement, it is among the most mature. Make no mistake: employees of rival animation studios will not be the only ones shedding tears. Pixar has never shied away from traumatizing its audience. Think back to the opening of Finding Nemo. Think about Bambi's mother and Old Yeller. Up provides a new addition to this list of traumatic moments. Consider yourself forewarned.

But, like Finding Nemo, Up offers therapy as well as emotional strain. There are no shortage of gags and jokes. The movie does an admirable job balancing slapstick and drama. Yes, you will laugh, you will cry, and, as always, you will thank Pixar for the experience.

The animation is topnotch, as always, though I can think of no moments which represent a major departure or technical innovation. But fear not: the script is somewhat more notable. In every Pixar movie I've seen, there has been at least one scene or exchange of dialogue which felt forced or unnecessary. In The Incredibles, it was the "I don't know what will happen" moment right before the final robot battle. In Finding Nemo, it was the "I don't want to forget"/"I do" exchange. While these moments certainly don't prevent me from loving the films, they were scenes that felt forced and perhaps even sappy.

But nothing in Up seemed out of place. I can't think of a single emotional moment or line that felt inappropriate or wrong. Perhaps later viewings will cause me to reconsider, but, on some level, this may be the closest to perfection that Pixar has achieved.

This doesn't make Up my favorite Pixar movie, however: The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Monsters Inc. all trump it, and Ratatouille is right on the edge. But whatever my presences, Up has fewer flaws than any of these. Indeed, there are few movies in the history of film, I suspect, with so few missteps.

I've been pondering how to conclude this, and it is possible that I am growing soft. Nonetheless, Up has a certain emotional resonance that can't be discarded or ignored. Take your pick: Finding Nemo, Wall-E, or any other Pixar film. Up, I think, is their equal, at least objectively. It's also a beautifully crafted celebration of life, as uplifting as it is heart wrenching.

But then, it is a Pixar film. What did you expect?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation

I would like to draw your attention, if I might, to an article I wrote in April, where I predicted that Terminator Salvation would be celebrated by 80% of the critics viewing it. I went on to suggest if it couldn't impress more than 60%, I'd most likely skip it entirely.

And yet here we are. The movie has barely achieved half of the "minimum" I set: last I checked, it was at 33% - and falling.

From this I can only conclude that Sarah Connor was wrong, that we are pawns of fate, and that I was destined to see this movie. The future, it seems, is what McG makes of it.

And for that, I am kind of grateful. While it wasn't a good movie, I enjoyed it.

But no review of Terminator Salvation can start with this film, itself. No, words must first be spent on the franchise as a whole. I'm unsure whether this is a legal requirement or merely convention, but I've no wish to upset the powers that be.

I saw Terminator 2 a few years before I saw the original. I think there's little doubt that the second is the best of the franchise, though I sometimes wonder if we wouldn't have been better off without. While interesting, the themes continue to plague the series. The first, while a less impressive movie, has a richer mythology that was weakened by the weight the sequel placed on free will.

Terminator 3 was a mindless action flick with an admirable conclusion. As for the television show, I've only seen an episode or two. I've heard it turned into something very good, and eventually I'll most likely catch the series. There is a long list of programs which have priority, however.

Like most fans of the franchise, I've long wanted to see the future that was briefly touched on in the first two films. I've wanted to see the battles and wars that were promised. And, in this at least, Terminator Salvation did not wholly disappoint. While the epic war was nowhere to be seen, there were enough skirmishes to keep me entertained.

The robots, as a whole, were excellent, and this is fundamentally what I went to see. For all this movie's faults, humans fought robots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And it was cool. The effects in general were impressive and well executed. Visually, I have little to complain about. On several occasions, I found myself wishing that Transformers had been given to McG rather than Michael Bay.

In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the twists the plot took. Not all were welcome, but there was at least one major turn I wasn't expecting. The actors were well cast, too: in particular, it's refreshing to see a version of John Connor who does more than run and complain.

The movie is far less successful when it comes to scenes without robots present. While the filmmakers excel at creating action, they are far less successful at drama. The tragedy is that they tried.

That's not entirely fair: some of the Marcus scenes are at least partly effective. Since Terminator 2, all of these movies are required to have a cyborg with a soul, and he handles the role far better than I'd have expected. Still, if this movie earns a sequel, I sincerely hope they omit this trope.

Overall though, the dialogue feels forced. You've heard most of the best lines in the trailers, and, truth be told, they're generally better without context. The last five minutes are particularly awful. The phrase "unnecessary sentimental drivel" may actually be too lenient. But it's only five minutes, and this movie isn't about the dialogue or drama. The action scenes are exceptional, well worth the cost of a ticket.

While it's nowhere near the quality of Star Trek, Terminator Salvation contains some highly engaging action sequences, which is more than I can say for Wolverine. In addition, there is a scene towards the end reminiscent of Professor X's much criticized cameo. I'm happy to report, however, that where Wolverine failed, Terminator succeeds. Gloriously, I might add.

Terminator Salvation is a bad movie, but a good one at that. On a five star scale, where five is The Chronicles of Riddick, I'm awarding this three and three quarters.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Future Market 2009, Part III: July

Already, summer is under way, and we still have work to do. The future, after all, cannot be expected to predict itself.

With this in mind, we return to the task at hand, blindly guessing how critics will react to various films and setting arbitrary guidelines for attendance. The Estimated Tomatometer accompanying each description represents the former: my best prediction for how the critics will respond. The Minimum Tomatometer is the lowest possible level the rating could slip to and still expect to receive my money. Of course, I reserve the right to go anyway, but then I've no one to blame but myself.

If you've missed the first two installments, perhaps you should consider yourself lucky. My estimates for Wolverine and Star Trek were far from the mark. Nevertheless, this is the internet, where links are cheap and space is wasted. Therefore, for better or worse, parts one and two can be found by following the respective links.

Part three can be located here, but using that link could trap you in an infinite recursion from which escape is impossible or, at the very least, somewhat unlikely. Let us therefore state this in no uncertain terms:

The Middle Room strongly discourages the use of the link in the above paragraph.

But enough of such things. Let us go on.

July 1: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Estimated Tomatometer: 34%
Minimum Tomatometer: 95%
This appears here, because there are dinosaurs present. In The Middle Room, we've a great deal of appreciation for endangered life forms, and, if time travel technology does not advance soon, we may one day have no chance but to formally declare these proud creatures extinct. But there seems little hope that Ice Age will engage such pressing issues: instead I anticipate mindless high jinx and pointless CG (but not in a good way, like with Transformers).

Our estimate is based on simple mathematics: the first Ice Age was given a rating of 78%, while the second received 56%. We are presuming critical reaction to be geometric in this case.

July 1: Public Enemies
Estimated Tomatometer: 65%
Minimum Tomatometer: 85%
It is difficult to predict the quality of this movie: I can't, for the life of me, tell whether this is an action adventure, a dark comedy, a drama, or something else. As much as the leads intrigue me, I seldom venture to the theater on the strength of the actors alone. If the film is received well enough, though, I may decide it's worth the money.

Movies with Johnny Depp (iD&Di: .48) tend to be well received, but the lack of advanced word gives me pause. I'm hedging my bet at 65%: time will tell if this is accurate.

July 10: Bruno
Estimated Tomatometer: 80%
Minimum Tomatometer: 95%
Borat is certainly a film I enjoyed and found immensely funny. But it's one I caught on DVD, and I don't believe that format lessened the effect. I would need to see very positive reactions from this to make the journey to the theater. Though, to be honest, it is unlikely the critical response that will determine my attendance. This is the kind of movie that is seen - or skipped - on word of mouth.

The estimation of 80% is something of a shot in the dark: Borat received a 94% approval, but I find it highly unlikely critics will be as kind now that its star is well known.

July 17: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Estimated Tomatometer: 85%
Minimum Tomatometer: 60%
I eagerly await the next installment in this franchise, which I've enjoyed from the start. I should add that I've never read the books, though I've heard they're quite good. At any rate, I've come to expect these films to be entertaining, and I find it highly unlikely that I'll be disappointed.

The estimate is merely an average of the last three movies. While the directors have come and gone, the quality has been surprisingly consistent.

Already, our four part series is three-fourths of the way complete. I leave it to you, dear reader, to complete the math.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek

My first comment after Star Trek concluded was, "That was much better than the other Star Wars prequels!" While this assessment is far from a complete appraisal, it gets to the heart of why the vast majority of its audience will love it, and why a small number of die-hard Trekkies may not.

This isn't to say all Trekkies won't enjoy Star Trek: I expect the vast majority will celebrate its accomplishments. It isn't a matter of the depth of one's devotion that's significant, either: it comes down to what you loved about the original series and what you can do without.

Consider Ebert's review, representative of the six-percent minority of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who didn't like the film. His complaint, in essence, is this: the original Star Trek was thoughtful science fiction, while this is an action movie.

His critique, in some ways, is not unfair. The new film is more adventure than philosophy. While the original was slow and thought-provoking, the pacing here is almost reminiscent of last year's Speed Racer.

And I, for one, enjoyed the hell out of it.

Last week I began rewatching the original Star Trek series on You Tube, and I've been reminded why I love it. While not every episode is perfect, there are moments of brilliance here. And these moments will exist forever - a point not lost on the makers of this picture, by the way, who incorporated the idea into the movie.

These moments would not be improved by bringing them to the big screen. They've been done, and there is no reason to retread this ground. Thought provoking science fiction is not improved by upping the budget and condensing the story into a few hours.

Is this a big-budget action movie with more spectacle than substance? Perhaps, but it is unabashedly so. This is pulp SF at it's best.

And the characters are still here. They've been recast, streamlined, and altered, but always in a manner that honors the originals. The effect is similar to what's been done on the best comic book adaptations. The character on film cannot encapsulate the entirety of the source material, so rather than try, the filmmakers have chosen elements to focus on. The casting is absolutely perfect: I can't think of a single actor who didn't work for me.

A litmus test for this movie is simple: if you enjoyed any aspect of First Contact, you'll love what Abrams has created. Both movies "reduced" Star Trek to an action movie, and both were wondrously entertaining. If you prefer a more recent analogy, it also reminds me of Iron Man, which, through careful streamlining and brilliant casting, impressed all of us last year.

But this is superior to both First Contact and Iron Man. As I said at the start, there is a great deal of Star Wars here: from the string of cliffhangers to the iconic characters and beautiful - and I mean beautiful - sequences. This is an amazing relaunch to a franchise that needed and deserved salvation. On a five Star Wars scale, this movie is deserving of four and a half.

This version of Star Trek may not be deep, but it is absolutely brilliant.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Another Adamantium Bullet in the Brainpan

Following the "success" of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fox is already planning a sequel, which will henceforth be referred to as X-MOW 2. According to rumor, the movie is to take place in Japan and chronicle the Wolverine's experiences as he presumably learns the way of the samurai and kills dozens - if not hundreds - of ninja.

To The Middle Room, and geeks everywhere, this poses a difficult problem. We now know that Fox is incapable of delivering even a halfway decent Wolverine movie. We've seen their best attempt and weren't impressed.

And yet... could it be possible that Fox might have learned from their mistake? Could this sequel possibly honor the tradition of Wolverine hunting and slaughtering ninja? Could this movie conceivably... not suck?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is no. If Fox were capable of learning from their mistakes, they'd have taken something from X-Men 3. There is no rational reason to believe that the Wolverine sequel could be better than the first: indeed, it is far more likely that the opposite will be true, that whatever sequel Fox could conceive of will be worse than the original.

And yet... is there hope? Is it not the meaning of faith to cling to hope, even when logic stands against us?

In the end, it won't matter. We paid to see X-Men 3 in the theater. We paid to see X-MOW in the theater. And we will pay again to see X-MOW 2. This cycle, we suspect, shall continue for all eternity.

Because Fox has no need of our faith; Fox needs only our money. And perhaps our souls.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

A part of me is always sad to see Free Comic Book Day end, because we must wait an entire year for another.

But there is little reason to despair: we still have, after all, the memories. And we have the comics. In this case, we have many, many comics. Forty-six unique books, in fact, along with an additional fifty-seven duplicates. Also, we received two Flash pins.

Did it take an army to gather such a prize? No, dear reader, no. This is the take of two (though special thanks are due to a third companion, who donated a rare and much-sought-after issue to our collection). And, of course, we required five comic stores to complete our day's mission.

Until next year, we bid you a Happy Free Comic Book Day. If we see you in the next few days, don't be surprised if we offer you some extras.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Movie Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The Middle Room would like to offer our sincere condolences to Hugh Jackman (iD&Di: .49) for the release of his new movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Jackman is a fine actor and a friend to all geeks: we wish someone else had been involved with this picture.

We had such high-to-mediocre hopes for this film. It wasn't that we anticipated greatness; but we'd hoped for a film that would play to the fourteen year-old in us all. But, were I to have seen this when I was fourteen, I'd have liked it no better than I did today.

It wasn't so much that it was a bad movie: we've all seen bad movies and, as often as not, enjoyed them. No, Wolverine's sin was much less forgivable: it was a waste. A waste of actors, of money, and, most of all, of source material. Weapon-X may fall short of fine literature, but there were some good concepts within, and this film failed to do them justice.

The overall experience was reminiscent of watching Daredevil. It was obvious the writers were familiar with the source material, obvious that they'd read it many times, and yet no evidence they understood any of it. There were images and ideas I remember from comics, but the point had been lost.

The best thing I can say about the movie is this: at times, it was fascinating to watch the scenes fail. At some point, about fifteen minutes in, it occurred to me that what I was watching was intended to be dramatic. The effect was lost among the confused laughter of the audience. This was a fiasco and seeing it unfold was a twisted kind of entertainment in itself.

Oh, there was the occasional moment that worked well enough. There were many things wrong with the film's portrayal of Gambit, for example, but after what they did to the Blob, I found myself looking at the Cajun and thinking, "That's not so bad."

There were some good effects, though for every shot that worked there were two that failed. In fact, there were scenes in this movie which may redefine the meaning of bad CG: if there is a Razzie for bad special effects, I sincerely hope Wolverine is at least nominated.

Walking into the theater, I never imagined that this could be worse than Daredevil, but such is the case. Take heart it is still significantly better a movie than Catwoman.

If X-Men 2 were defined as a five star picture, Wolverine would deserve one and a half. Unless you are driven by an unreasonable hunger to see superhero movies on the big screen, there is no reason for you to spend your money on this. There are, after all, far better movies on the horizon.

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day: there are better things for you to be doing this weekend than wasting your time with this.