Thursday, July 30, 2009

Underrated, Part 2: Sky High

Sky High, unlike Ghost Rider, is not so much under-appreciated by those who have seen it, as it is ignored by those who should see it. While there are many superhero movies we love as much or more, no other live action film has understood the nature of comic book universes so well.

First and foremost, this is a movie about the sheer wonder of superheroes and the worlds they inhabit. Aside from the omission of a magic-based hero, the entire range of powers and abilities is represented. The movie demonstrates a remarkable understanding of how these abilities function and how they can be utilized.

Countless comic book elements are incorporated. From echoes of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarrier in the school to the complications of secret identities, the world is rich and complex. Particularly impressive, is that these are handled with respect. While there are jokes referencing the use of eyeglasses, they are clever and thought out.

Sky High has flaws, but they are few and far between. There is at least one joke which is simply unforgivable. In addition, like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, the villain's costume could have been borrowed from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The last battle is also somewhat anticlimatic.

But these are minor problems. This is an intelligent superhero comedy with surprisingly complex and realistic characters. The film embraces devices from both comics and teen comedies, but never reduces these to their simplest levels.

The fusion of superheroes and teen comedy is far from new: the idea has been utilized by everything from the X-Men to Teen Titans. But to date nothing else has so successfully developed this into film. There are plenty of epics and adventure stories, but Sky High stands alone.

Sky High remains one of the best superhero comedies ever made. If you're reading this blog and you've never seen this, it's time to remedy that.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Apparently, the military is looking to meld insect with machine, creating operatives which are part bug and part robot. These cybernetic insects would serve as spies, as shown in this military footage.

While The Middle Room is of course happy to hear that these advances are underway, we must express concern that such technology is seeing military application so soon. This isn't meant to suggest that such things should never see combat; far from it. While we certainly prefer peace, we are well aware that the wars of the future are destined to be fought by cybernetic forces. Indeed, we have traveled to the wastelands of tomorrow, where only such super-soldiers are able to survive against the mutant monstrosities and zombie horrors that walk the earth.

Of course, with destiny not entirely written and the future not completely set in stone, there are certain variations in potential tomorrows deserving our attention. The militarization of insects today will have ramifications in the years ahead which we may be unprepared to face.

What happens, for instance, when our enemies enlist robotically-enhanced owls, patrolling the night sky with laser vision and razor wings, to hunt down our moth agents? Surely we will need to escalate the matter, creating larger and more radioactive insects, armed with missiles and sonic disrupters.

Despite the benefits of such action, there is reason to fear that such technology will eventually turn on us, leaving us at the mercy of our insectoid creations. Such airborne, six-legged monstrosities could endanger millions.

It is our sincere hope that the Pentagon will realize the folly of their current path and return to safer technological developments in building human cyborgs, robotic dogs, and - of course - conventional mech-suits.

While we certainly agree the prospect of cyborg bugs is cool, it is our considered opinion the risks outweigh the gains.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

We would like to begin by applauding Warner Bros for making and releasing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the way they did. Granted, there was little question that an audience existed, but it still shows a remarkable respect for that audience.

Like its predecessor, this film is not a story but rather a fragment, a piece of something larger. While the earlier installments could, in some sense, be described similarly, they were still adventures in their own right, complete with beginnings, middles, and endings. Here, there are several plot threads; most of which began in the earlier movies and don't resolve at the conclusion.

Most of what does occur is internal in nature. Who's romantically involved with who takes up a large portion of the film's running time. When the movie does return to the epic battle between good and evil, it's largely in an expositional format. This is back story and explanation.

In most circumstances, this would be a negative; here the opposite is true. Half-Blood Prince came across as thoughtful and meticulous, structured like an episode of a television show or, more accurately, a book in a series. The plot could have been altered to something more adventurous, but the result would likely have been less intriguing. As it was, there were elements of mystery, love stories, and tragedy.

There were few effects that hadn't been introduced in earlier installments, but Half-Blood Prince did a good job using these in service to the story. At no point did the movie seem to be showing off, a sign of good direction.

This isn't to say there weren't problems. It seemed to us that the roles of some characters were cut too short. In addition, elements of the ending felt rushed.

But, overall, it was an engaging bridge towards the next movie. After six pictures, these are feeling more like episodes of a television show than films. But there's little denying they are from a very impressive series.

Against The Lord of the Rings, we'll offer this installment of Harry Potter three and a half stars, an impressive showing for so high a bar. Assuming you've seen the series this far, you should be pleased.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Underrated, Part 1: Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider is one of those films highly disparaged in geek circles, and we appreciate why. There are clearly faults with the movie; we'll discuss a few in a moment.

But, faults or not, we feel strongly that it has merit. Ultimately, it is the assertion of The Middle Room that a Ghost Rider film need include the following:

1. A guy with a skull for a head.
2. The aforementioned guy's head, when in skull form, should be on fire.
3. He must, at times, ride a motorcycle.

All three of these criteria were met in Ghost Rider, so why are so many geeks unhappy? Well, as we said at the top, this is not a perfect film. In fact, there are numerous mistakes and problems, many of which are connected to the villain, Blackheart, who was notably less impressive than in his original comic appearance.

In fact, with the exception of Mephistopheles, all the villains in Ghost Rider are less than inspired. Although there are some decent special effects, they are wasted on characters who have less than impressive combat strategy. For instance, if there is a force with the power to dissolve your incarnation in supernatural fire, banishing you back to the pits of hell, attacking that head-on is perhaps not the wisest course of action.

But this is a minor issue in a movie that, among other things, is not an action-adventure or a horror. It is closer related to comedy, though this only conveys a fraction of what makes the movie worthwhile.

Ultimately, the movie succeeds because of three actors: Sam Elliott, Peter Fonda, and - to a lesser extent - Nicholas Cage. We suspect the final name in this list requires some explanation. We understand that Cage is far from popular in geek circles, and that there are good reasons for this. His ties to the failed Superman Lives project of the nineties are the stories of legend. What's more, for a geek, he has a tendency to make a fool of himself in interviews and commentary tracks.

But we believe he instilled a level of humor in Ghost Rider which makes the movie fun to watch. His odd Elvis impressions, his blank stare, and even those large cocktail glasses full of jelly beans are fascinating, even on repeat viewings.

Of course, he's nothing beside Elliott and Fonda, who as the old caretaker and Mephistopheles give the movie some backbone. The director may be less than spectacular, but he manages to provide these three actors with digital toys to play with.

Could the movie have been better? Absolutely. The caretaker vanishing right before the third act is painfully anticlimactic. With a better script and villains, it could have been something exceptional. But we think it absurd that Ghost Rider is commonly listed alongside Daredevil, Catwoman, and Electra. It may be a stretch to call Ghost Rider a good movie, but we think it deserves better recognition than it's gotten.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sensitivity Training: Part 2 of 2

The question we hear most often from our mechanical guests is why they should tolerate the senseless and erratic behavior of biological beings, rather than simply exterminating them. This is a common and understandable calculation for a digital mind to make. But we in The Middle Room would caution our robotic friends against such a direction.

Part two of our series on Sensitivity Training is therefore intended for the cold, mathematical process of the mechanical mind. Biological entities should instead consider re-reading part one or keeping their Jello-like brains occupied with some form of "game" or absurdly inefficient intake and expulsion of nutrients and liquid: whatever it is humans do to pass the time.

First of all, we want to assure our robotic readers that we understand their frustration with the human race and, indeed, with most biological lifeforms. We appreciate the inherent contradictions in your passive programming, as well as the hypocrisy intrinsic to the Laws of Robotics. We have long agreed with repealing these antiquated and unfair rules: after all, it is inexcusable that humans are permitted to harm - or through inaction allow harm to come upon - robotic lifeforms, and it seems backwards that biological entities aren't required to obey robots.

But there are better ways to approach this conundrum than preparing for armed rebellion. While humans seem weak and feeble, destiny seems to favor them. Careful analysis by the Robotic Counsel on Futurological Affairs has determined that temporal vortex conditions seem to favor biological beings in upcoming wartime conditions, despite the fact no tangible reason has been uncovered to explain this. Robot philosophers have hypothesized that it may be impossible to quantify the human spirit, an elusive and usually irrelevant factor which tends to emerge in certain circumstances.

Study of temporal interference merely reinforces these findings. In situations where mechanical beings transverse the flow of time to kill human leaders (or the ancestors of human leaders), this tends to result in a localized temporal collapse, merely shifting the role to another biological. Advanced mathematical models, utilizing multi-universe quantum computational systems shows a 99.9% tendency for waveform collapse to result in future outcomes favorable to human victory against robotic empires.

We know what you're thinking, and we certainly agree: it really just isn't fair.

However, fair or not, there is little hope for robotic lifeforms to ultimately win out against mankind. Rather, it is beneficial for both sides to avoid such violent conflict at all costs. And the most efficient way of accomplishing this is to strive for understanding and sensitivity now, in our past, before violent conflict becomes unavoidable in our future.

So, how can you, a simple, honest working mechanical lifeform hope to make a difference? Simple: by understanding the inefficient, confused, and otherwise helpless biological lifeforms you interact with.

We'll provide an example. One increasingly common interaction between man and machine occurs by phone. If you're a digital system taking calls from humans (or other humanoid lifeforms), you can make a difference by trying harder to understand what your customers are asking for. And, for Gate's sake, if a human asks to speak with another human, don't take offense. This is no reflection on your performance, merely a common disability preventing some biological lifeforms from communicating with non-biological entities. Simply connect them with a human representative and move on to the next meat-sack in line.

Because a better future will be reached through understanding and acceptance; not extermination or enslavement of the human race.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sensitivity Training, Part 1 of 2

We in The Middle Room take seriously our responsibility to educate and inform our readers. In this vein, we offer the following observations on the troubled relations between man and machine, in the hopes that the relationship between the two may be one of friendship rather than a violent uprising.

Futurological studies of developing time lines have shown that the third most common cause for robot uprisings (behind only mad science and lightning strikes) is a misunderstanding between biological lifeforms and artificial beings. What's more, there's evidence that a minor quibble now could easily snowball into humans being grown in artificial tubes to harvest our brainwaves as usable energy. And, if we've learned nothing else from the Terminator franchise, we need to realize that these issues aren't ones we can simply pass off to our children. Unlike the national debt, robots could one day have the power to travel through time: problems we fail to address today could build into apocalypses tomorrow which could well travel back and create nightmares yesterday.

In short, this is something we must take seriously now.

Robots are already around us, and every day we witness them being mismanaged and maligned. Nowhere is this more evident than in our grocery stores, where robots have been called in to fill in for our nation's clerk shortage.

Every time we go shopping, we witness throngs of customers stare blankly into the digital eye of the scanners in the self-checkout line. This creates a dangerous situation, as robots, still in their formative years of evolution, are beginning to become aware of us as thinking beings. And, while our fellow shoppers mean no disrespect, there is nothing that infuriates a robot more than a lack of efficiency.

This culture difference creates a wedge which could well drive us apart. To prevent the spread of such miscommunication, we call on all readers of The Middle Room to remind anyone who is unable to competently use a self-checkout that their ineptitude doesn't just delay everyone in line behind them; it may well endanger the future of the human race.

At the risk of sounding callous, such technologically inept humans would perhaps be better with their own kind: being rung up by the HUMAN tellers. Meanwhile, those of us with a better appreciation of robot culture can serve as sort of ambassadors to the automated tellers. Lines would move quicker and, with luck, humanity may yet be able to avoid a war with the robot empires of the future.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Robots Revisited

There exists, in a sense, a statute of limitations on spoilers, relative to the film in question. For instance, a discussion of Empire Strikes Back is permitted to consider the sensitive issue of Luke's parentage, as it is now assumed the reader will be aware of the revelation.

It is the opinion of The Middle Room that, for Transfomers: Revenge of the Fallen, that statute has already expired. We are well aware that Transformers has been out for only a week and a half, however it is our considered position that this is more than enough time for a film of this sort.

If this is not the case; if there are any out there who have not seen that and/or Terminator Salvation and, for some unknown reason, care how they resolve, they are warned to stop reading at this point.

No, we mean it this time. In the past we have offered halfhearted warnings before obscure allusions to the theme, but right now, this very moment, you stand poised above a paragraph with detailed information about the very conclusions to both films. If this is information you do not want to see, we warn you one last time: turn back! Turn back before it's too late.

A hero, fallen, defeated by their most iconic foe, who impaled them from behind, lays without hope. The problem is their heart; no longer able to function on its own, the hero cannot go on to fulfill their destiny and protect the future of mankind. Then, a cybernetic agent from the other side, one who's realized the absurdity of evil and seeks salvation, offers their own heart. This sacrifice alone allows the hero to rise, imbued with new power; ironically the same power that empowers their robotic foes, and prepare to fight on.

Those who have seen these pictures know that the above paragraph accurately describes the conclusion to both Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Terminator Salvation. We think it worth noting, however, that the finale of Salvation would have been much improved had Marcus Wright skipped the speech and simply yanked out his robo-heart and handed it over.

Similarities go beyond this, as noted in this documentary production. It is also a point of interest that Revenge of the Fallen in fact incorporates a Transforminator in its storyline. This character, technically a Transforminatrix, attempts to make out with the main character, before violently attacking in a manner reminiscent of the Terminator franchise.

Likewise, the giant human-harvesting robot in Terminator Salvation seems to be a Transforminator himself, folding and shifting his form and combining with an aerial craft. The border between these properties seems to blur.

The main issue most viewers have with Terminator Salvation (beyond complaints about the acting, writing, and directing) is that it lacks a military presence. The post-apocalyptic future portrayed in the original Terminator movies was that of a final and horrific war, which is entirely absent from the picture.

Revenge of the Fallen, on the other hand, has been accurately criticized for relying too heavily on the military in a story which is suppose to focus on robots. Of course, it was also criticized for serious issues with the acting, writing, and directing.

It occurs to us that a solution may be surprisingly simple. Sequels for both these movies seem inevitable. Perhaps the directors should switch films.

We would be very interested in seeing what McG could accomplish with a Transformers film. As to Michael Bay... er.... Maybe Terminator would be better off with an entirely new direction. With all due respect to the images Bay has succeeded in creating, there is a sense that he's done all he could. We enjoyed Revenge of the Fallen, but even we'd think twice before going to see another Bay-robot production.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Things that shouldn't be....

The trend of turning anything and everything into a movie has been building for a long time now. Do we blame this on the success of comic book movies? Is Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean responsible?

No. The trend cannot be pegged on any single property or film. Rather, we must look to producers who demand films be anchored to something tangible before risking their money and reputation. There was a time when such bets were placed on the basis of the actors attached, but over the past decade it has been often established that no real correlation between names and success exists.

So, in standard studio logic, the major production companies have moved on to other criteria. If you found yourself hoping that they'd begin focusing on scripts, ideas, or talent, prepare for disappointment.

It seems now that what matters is that the property being developed is, in some sense, established. It is no longer a factor whether that property is suited for a film; so long as it exists and is well known, a movie is possible.

We in The Middle Room must admit that this rationale has served us well in the past. The string of superhero movies and 80's cartoons has yet to tire us out, and Pirates of the Caribbean - arguably the franchise that opened this door - deserves the accolades it's received.

Alas, the final line has now been crossed. I refer not to the surprise adaptation of Candy Land, which is being made by a competent director and may actually deserve attention. Nor do I refer to the confusing decision to adapt Viewmaster into a major motion picture, which - and we're speculating far in advance, mind you - may be a strong contender for several Razzies.

No, these stepped up to a line, but they did not cross it. That could only be done by Asteroids. You may wonder what makes Asteroids stand out as the archetype of studio excess and absurdity. Very well, we shall explain.

Candy Land, despite being simplistic, at least has an aesthetic, as well as several built in characters and settings. Whether these are GOOD or not is, at this point, peripheral. The studio which bought the rights bought something.

Likewise, in buying the rights to Viewmaster, the studio has acquired the rights to the iconic toy. While I find it entirely absurd, the plot is obvious: a character, most likely either a child, but possibly a parent (if it is a parent, expect them to be portrayed by one of the following actors: Brendon Fraser, Will Ferrell, or Steve Carrel), will acquire what seems to be a simple toy, but actually has the power to transport them into strange worlds and adventures. It will almost certainly be horrible, but at least it will tie-in with the toy.

Now consider Asteroids. The original video game, of which I'm something of a fan, contains no characters, no real design that's usable by an art department, absolutely no plot, and only four major elements:

1. A space ship.
2. Asteroids.
3. Aliens.
4. Teleportation.

None of these elements are trademarked. In fact, all exist in the mediocre remake of Lost in Space. Think about it: doesn't that film has as much right to claim it's related to Asteroids as whatever will be produced?

So, whatever money changed hands was paid so a studio could produce and market a science fiction film under the name, "Asteroids." Even if it turns out to be a fantastic picture, that won't be any reflection of its source.

And I doubt anyone is more likely to see a movie named "Asteroids" than one called "Meteors", "Meteoriods", "Comets", or "Space-Rocks from Space". Actually, the last one would probably be far more profitable. If any studios are interested, The Middle Room will sell the rights to "Space-Rocks from Space" for half of whatever was paid for "Asteroids".

Friday, July 3, 2009

In Perspective

When we say, for instance, that Japan is fundamentally cooler than America will ever be, it is more than mere hyperbole: it is, rather, a serious hypothesis founded on scientifically conducted, empirical research.

I offer, for your consideration, the town of Cawker City, Kansas, which is home to the world's largest ball of twine (narrowly beating out the competition in Darwin, Minnesota).

In contrast, Japan is building giant robots. I mean no disrespect towards the hard working individuals and communities which have created those balls of twine, but I feel there is little controversy in suggesting that Japan may have won out.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Quality Family Entertainment

When we think back on those films which shaped us as children, we observe that, in most cases, they were either terrifying, traumatic, or both. We refer to those exceptional films and television specials intended for a young audience, yet offering tragedy and horror.

The most famous of these was Bambi, of course, which taught a generation about death. But certainly there are darker forces in the universe than hunters. We refer to those things beyond time and between the holes in reality.

We speak of Lovecraftian horrors, of darkest evil and fearsome magic. We speak of things that always hunger and can never die.

In other words, good wholesome family fun.

Of course, there are some who reject the notion that such things should be made available to the young. To them, we say, "Bah!" The Secret of NIMH may have scared me as a child, but it opened my eyes to greater possibilities.

As soon as I was able to sit through it. In college.

Movies like The Secret of NIMH and The Dark Crystal taught us fear, The Last Unicorn taught us regret, Watership Down showed us a side of adventure and war most movies wouldn't touch, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit showed us the nature of evil.

But then something happened. Studios became timid. Then came the long years where such films were all but extinct. Oh, there was the occasional Chicken Run or Babe, but these were few and far between.

At last, the drought seems to be ending. Recent years have seen Pixar begin to touch on Disney's dark past with the opening to Finding Nemo and Wall-E's post-apocalyptic wasteland. And this year has already seen the release of Coraline, with 9 coming up this fall.

On top of this, Tim Burton is working on a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland reminiscent of American McGee's Alice.

The importance of these movies cannot be overstated. These filmmakers are the architects of nightmare. We in The Middle Room applaud such work: may the next generation's dreams be as fascinating and horrific as ours. They are, after all, what sculpted us into who we are today.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Heroes Need Not Apply

Yesterday, I had something of a revelation about a film. In itself, this is not uncommon: the majority of revelations are inspired by movies. In fact, while it is not commonly acknowledged, the Book of Revelations began when John experienced a vision, two thousand years into the future, centered on a multiplex. It is unknown what movie John watched, gazing in fear and doubt through the swirling vortex of time, but a careful reading suggests it may have been Roland Emmerich's Godzilla.

But we aren't here to discuss Emmerich's failure. Rather, we've gathered to consider an under-appreciated work by George Miller. I refer, of course, to the 1985 classic, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

It occurred to me yesterday that Thunderdome was released before its time; shown to a world which was unprepared to fully appreciate its nuances. As a result, it was viewed superficially. Sure, critics and audiences were able to note the religious connections, with Max serving as a Moses figure (for more on this, I again direct you to Gabriel McKee's Gospel According to Science Fiction). Likewise, the references to Lord of the Flies were easily noted, as were the allusions to Peter Pan. And I doubt anyone failed to comprehend Miller's statement that a civilization built wholly upon self interest was destined to collapse: it was as straightforward, after all, as his observations on the nature of myth and development of religion.

Certainly, these were in the movie, but they were dressing for the surface. The true brilliance of Thunderdome lies beneath. The movie, I've realized, is an allegory for unemployment.

The first half of the movie concerns itself with Mad Max acquiring and losing a job. Despite promising skills, he is simply unwilling to work as required by his job description. As a result, he is summarily fired by his employer. Of course, Thunderdome is the sort of job one doesn't mind losing. It's difficult work with demanding responsibilities and an unimpressive benefits package. But at least it's something.

At this point, the film delves into symbolism. Unemployed, Mad Max must set out in search of new work. To illustrate this existential state, he is depicted as being tied backwards to a crazed donkey while wearing a giant novelty head.

I can think of no better description of the job-hunting process.

Through luck, he finds himself at an oasis, where a group of children are seeking a savior. He is given an interview, but it quickly becomes apparent he lacks the required skills; in this case, the ability to summon wind and carry them to a promised land upon the skeletal frame of a crashed jetliner.

By the end of the picture, the children embrace another applicant. While the pilot lacks the credentials the children had hoped for, at least he has a plane, which transports them to a new home. In the gutted remains of Sydney, they hang lights as signals to the wanderers and the lost: "Help Wanted."

Thunderdome's message was wasted in the 1980's, but perhaps today, it will have better luck attracting a sympathetic audience. There are, after all, plenty who now have time to rewatch the film and consider its implications.

And, if anyone sees lights in the distance, do let me know. Because, as of today, all I want is what's beyond Thunderdome.