Saturday, October 24, 2009

Movie Review: Zombieland

It is impossible to coherently discuss the movie Zombieland without spoilers; therefore this review will be entirely incoherent.

Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead are inevitable, as that has set the bar for contemporary zombie-comedy films.  Indeed, we will come back to Shaun in time, but it is not where we intend to start.

Zombies aside, we detected a hint of Fight Club in the first third of this movie.  In addition to the use of text digitally embedded in the world, the two main characters here were more than a little reminiscent of Tyler Durden and the narrator in Fight Club.

This isn't a criticism, by the way, merely an observation.  Both Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg were hilarious, and we found their characters intrinsically likeable.  But aspects were certainly familiar.

You should also be aware that this movie does not shy away from gore.  These are not a breed of sanitary, dry undead: these are viral zombies, seemingly alive.  Their wounds bleed, they vomit, and they tear into the living like starved animals.  This may be a comedy at heart, but it isn't afraid to rip that heart out and hold it up to the camera, so long as it's in a lighthearted way.

We have heard that the concept behind Zombieland was originally intended for television.  Despite the violence and language, we have no problem believing this: ultimately, Zombieland felt more like the first three episodes of a very good TV show than it did a full movie.

It also felt like each of those episodes was written and directed by someone different.  This isn't to say any of the movie was bad - as a point of fact, the opposite was true - it was simply inconsistent.  This may require a bit of clarification, as Shaun of the Dead utilized dramatically different tones at different points, as well.  But Shaun of the Dead used an evolving tone to gradually move the genre from comedy to horror, before snapping back at the last minute.  It was intentional and methodical.

Zombieland doesn't feel so thought out.  It's as though there were separate visions for different parts of the movie, and these were never integrated or reconciled.  This doesn't ruin the experience, though it does give the movie less weight than it otherwise could have had.

The ending also feels more TV than film, lacking gravitas or effect.  When all is said and done, the theme is more or less that of a kid's movie, and its attempts to develop any kind of existential point are undermined by a lack of consistency.

We must also pause to discuss a scene that, due to it's nature, can't be discussed.  It is a scene featuring an actor playing a character.  To describe this in more depth, apparently, would be to spoil the movie.  Every review or article we've seen has implied this to be the spoiler of the century and, while we don't personally feel it's quite that significant, far be it from us to break the embargo.

The scene in question, which we cannot discuss, occurs around the center of the movie.  We've seen it referred to as a cameo, though it feels more like a guest star: again, more TV than film.

The odd thing is, from the standpoint of narrative, the scene should not be in the movie.  It completely erodes the already faltering tone, and the behavior of the characters is completely irrational.  From a logical perspective, it shouldn't be here.  However, it's doubtlessly the high point of the film.  On some level, that encapsulates our opinion of this movie: the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, but at least the parts are a hell of a lot of fun.

If you're already at the theater and are trying to choose a movie to see, Zombieland is certainly a good option; not as good as Where the Wild Things Are, but then few movies are.  But we would hesitate to recommend going out of your way to see it.  This is the kind of movie that seems like it was destined to be a DVD.  We have high hopes for the extras, and we suspect it will hold up to repeat viewings.  But at an hour and a half with only seven credited cast members, it feels light for the big screen.

We considered holding this movie against Fight Club or Shaun of the Dead, but Zombieland chose its own muse.  We can't actually tell you what we're rating this against - that would be a spoiler - but we can tell you it scores three and a half stars against the epitome of what it's trying to be.  It owes a lot to that film, actually.  Kudos to Zombieland for finding an opportunity to thank it directly.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Star Wars and Lord of the Rings

As of late, we've spent some time discussing both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.  In the process, we've come to reflect on these epics and the odd relationship they share.

Just as Lucas defined theatergoers' expectations with Star Wars, Peter Jackson provided the standard for a new generation of geeks when he made The Lord of the Rings. The Middle Room stands somewhat between these generations. Perhaps that is why this is The MIDDLE Room.

No, our mistake: it's because we are situated between the front and back rooms.

We realize there are those who would pit these series against each other, as Kevin Smith has done in jest in Clerks 2, but there is no real animosity here. In truth, these have had a symbiotic relationship: neither would exist in its current form without the other. Lucas, when crafting his movies, was influenced by Tolkien's books, just as Peter Jackson was influenced by the Star Wars films.

Consider, if you will, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo is captured and taken to Jabba the Hutt, a scene reminiscent of Frodo's capture at the end of Tolkien's The Two Towers. In both cases, there is a great deal of ambiguity as to whether the hero is living or dead. Incidentally, this same cliffhanger occurs, in one form or another, in The Matrix Reloaded, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Chronicles of Riddick (though it's unclear if we'll ever receive the conclusion to that), Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and X-Men 2.

In Peter Jackson's Return of the King, during a scene not in the book, Eowyn kneels beside the mortally wounded Theoden. "I'm going to save you," she tells him. "You already did," he assures her, paraphrasing Luke and Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, whose title is almost certainly a reference to Tolkien's Return of the King.

Would Obi Wan have fallen to Vader if Gandalf hadn't to the Balrog? Did Tolkien's description of Sauron influence the look of Darth Vader? Did Vader then influence the design on Sauron in the movie?

From a more practical standpoint, it's unlikely New Line would have authorized funding for the Lord of the Rings trilogy without the precedent laid down by Star Wars. And one has to wonder if Fox would have laid down the money for Star Wars if it weren't for the existing fantasy and science fiction fan base Tolkien helped establish.

We could go on, but the point, we think, is made. These two trilogies are part of the same tradition, two towering beacons which help define the genre and, perhaps, each other.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze has created a film that truly captures the essence of youth.  You will spend the hour and a half reminiscing about your own childhood: the things you did, the way the world seemed, and the way you were treated.

If you think this will somehow translate into an experience heartwarming or magical, then you've forgotten what the experience was actually like.

That's okay.  Where the Wild Things Are will remind you.

It is, above all, honest.  Children are a violent and self centered lot.  Jonze's portrayal of youth is akin to J.M. Barrie's.  Lacking the perspective to understand the needs of others, children are trapped in an almost solipsistic reality in which they are driven mad by the universe's refusal to bend to their will.  There is a tragedy to innocence: children are ultimately alone in their own world.

Where the Wild Things Are explores this fearlessly.  It is also one of the most somber films we've ever seen, delving into its characters' pain and confusion.  The Wild Things are as dangerous and cruel as children themselves.  But, like Peter Pan, they won't grow up.  They are trapped forever; confused, angry, and alone.  And in pain.

You will feel for them.

Maurice Sendak has made some comments recently in which he brutally attacked critics of this film.  We assumed, as is only natural, that such attacks were motivated by his authorship of the book.  Now we know better: it is the only rational reaction we can imagine to criticism of this picture.  Apparently, more than thirty percent of critics disagree.

What is truly remarkable is how different Jonze's vision of this world is to what we've imagined.  We remember the book as a primal fantasy, but nothing about this movie feels like fantasy, at all.  Everything that happens, no matter how surreal or bizarre, is real.  There is no magic here, only emotion and pain.  Yet, somehow, this comes across as far more beautiful than anything we could have imagined.

It is a stellar film, a new classic "children's" movie.  It defies comparison: it is unlike any movie we can think of.  It is reminiscent of children's films which have dared cross genres and delve into difficult themes.  Watership Down.  Spirited Away.  The Last Unicorn.  Coraline.  These are, of course, all animated, and, in a sense, Where the Wild Things Are is as well: most of the movie revolves around puppets and digital effects.  But, in another sense, there is nothing animated here at all.  This is a work or realism, which incorporates monsters and impossibilities.  These are only tools, however: even before Max leaves for the island we were entranced by the world Jonze created.  Max's irritation at school, the fights with his family, and the intricacies of his life were no less fascinating than the monsters he went on to befriend.

This movie has no real comparison, which often creates problems for us when rating.  Not this time, however.  This time it's easy.

Five stars.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


By our accounting, there are two types of people on this world: those who believe in the existence of Moon Men and those who do not.

We find ourselves wondering which of these groups authorized military action against the moon.

On one hand, it seems obvious that only someone who does not believe in the existence of such beings would dare to strike the moon as we have.  On the other, why else would we have bothered?

The cover story for the attack relates to water, also known as dihydrogen monoxide.  The significance of this compound is obvious: its presence could suggest the possibility that the moon could support life.

But life, as we know, tends to grow angry when provoked.

If indeed there are Moon Men, what can we expect?  Through use of the internet, we have prepared some information which may prove invaluable to our readers.

Apparently, there is evidence that Moon Men may have ventured here in primitive times, as posited in the science fiction classic, Hercules Vs. the Moon Men.  If so, it seems likely these Moon Men may have been involved in the building of the pyramids and Stone Henge.  They may also have utilized some sort of time machine to travel to the future, than returned to inform the Mayans that the Earth was going to end in 2012.

If course, this was merely a trick, so we wouldn't expect their retaliation, which will likely occur within the month.  Be wary of the advice of Moon Men: they are a deceitful lot.

And Commando Cody is no longer around to protect us.

Friday, October 9, 2009


To many, Friday is a prince among the days of the week.  And, above all else, Friday night is a time of celebration; a symbol, a shining beacon of freedom and joy.  But to the geek, Friday night has a darker connotation, as well.

It is a time of death.

There are many shows we could name.  Hundreds, perhaps, have gone into that cold time slot.  Always there is hope: perhaps this will be another X-Files; perhaps it will escape.

But, in time, it is always the same.  Always the screens are black.  Always there is the same silence.  And then the sound of an ax falling.  And then nothing.

Nine o'clock at night.  You know it; it is the witching hour, when the TV executives stalk the shadows.  Pity the show that stumbles into their path.

We remember.  You know what we speak of: the show that transcended description, the program that rose above the limitations of mere television and stood as something... something more.

We speak of Firefly.  We speak of a television show that came as close to perfection as any ever has.  But it flew too high, too close to the sun.  And there were those who were jealous.  They could not abide something so brilliant, so they sent it into the abyss of Friday night.  Nine o'clock.  Eight central.

And it was gone.

We thought we would never love television again.  Then Dollhouse appeared, a show overseen by Joss Whedon.  In the same time slot, it was placed, sent to die, we assumed.

But Joss was wily.  He knew the slot hunted the greatest shows that wandered in, so he made the first season flawed.  And so it escaped, barely, to grow into a second season.

We have seen the first episodes of this new season, and we are scared.  Because its flaws have been beaten, its errors corrected.  Now, it has become a thing of intrigue and power.

And, like a storm, the dismal ratings are in.  Already, we can hear the sounds of gnashing teeth and the sharpening of the ax.  The curse is descending.  Can it be stopped?  Can it be undone?

We don't know.  But we will hope.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Juvenile Behavior

Disney's claim that the Toy Story double feature is "Two movies for the price of one" is somewhat misleading: since the films are being shown in 3D, you are actually receiving two movies for the price of one and a half.

But these are Pixar movies, so it is still a good deal.

Reviewing a pair of movies which came out years ago seems like a waste of our talents.  The experience is akin to that of watching two Pixar films.  In 3D.  The 3D is better in Toy Story 2 than the original, but then almost everything about Toy Story 2 is an improvement over the first film.  The original remains an excellent picture which invented a new form of storytelling, but the sequel may well be the movie that first mastered that form.

In many ways, Jessie's lament in Toy Story 2 paved the way for the dramatic moments which have since become the company's signature.  It would not retain its title as the best Pixar movie long - Monsters Inc. came out a few years later, with Finding Nemo and The Incredibles close behind, but it remains the best CG sequel ever made - possibly the best animated sequel to date.

All of this is academic, though.  These are fantastic films further enhanced by 3D technology.  That isn't what we're here to discuss.  We've come to discuss the audience.

In an effort to minimize the effect of seeing the movies in a audience of children, we selected a later screening, assuming that most parents would hesitate before bringing their young to a show ending at 10:30 on a Sunday night.

It seems we overestimated the average parent's concern for their childrens' education.  The theater was packed, emanating with the sounds of the young.  Whispered questions, cries, and shrill laughter echoed around us.

And, on the whole, it wasn't so bad.  The children surrounding us seemed relatively polite.  They were far from silent, but, overall, they did not detract from the films.

No, that was something solely accomplished by their parents.  There has been, as of late, a trend among audiences to ignore the request to deactivate cell phones and similar devices at the start of a picture.  We have witnessed, with both confusion and aggravation, audience members ignore the movie before them and turn to text messages and games.

But we've never before seen it in such numbers.  Perhaps these people have seen these movies so often they no longer care what's on the screen.  Perhaps it has yet to enter their minds that every time they check their email, those on either side of them - and indeed for dozens of rows back - are blinded by the sudden light.

Or maybe they simply shrug these implications under the logic that it's become common practice.  That such juvenile behavior comes from adults is discouraging, but perhaps not surprising.

We strongly believe that the experience of seeing these movies is well worth the effort, though we advocate waiting a few days and finding a theater playing these as late as possible.

Hopefully, it will be enough.

In the meantime, we would like to take this opportunity to call on our elected representatives: the request made at the start of movies is not enough.  Without legal consequences, there is little hope this behavior will change.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Art of War

Recently, Ain't It Cool News ran a contest, challenging readers to write a short piece explaining how they would contend with a Balrog, were they in Gandalf's shoes in the mines of Moria.  I entered this competition, devoting a whole hour toward composing a battle strategy.

The grand prize was an object with more worth than all of the Shire: two tickets to see the score of The Fellowship of Ring performed live.

Someone else won that.

However, unless there is another Erin Snyder in Astoria, NY who entered this contest, I came in a respectable second.  So, without further ado, here is my entry:


First things first - I’d need a little time to work.  I mean, there’s a good quarter mile or so between myself and the bridge of Khazad-dum, and, since I don’t personally serve the secret fire or wield the flame of Anor, I’ve got some prep work to take care of.  That means I have to buy some time to do this right.

So.  What are my assets?  I’ve got Aragorn and Boromir, both of whom are a tad too eager to cut down anything in their way: fine in most circumstances, but swords are no more use here.  I’ve got Legolas, who can apparently neuter a fly at a quarter mile: again, impressive… but not much help.  And there’s Gimli, who’s still pissed about the extermination of all the bearded men and women in Moria.

The thing is, those guys are all going to be useful down the road.  I need something expendable; something we’re not going to need to wrap up the trilogy.

What’s this?  I’ve also got four hobbits.  Let’s stop and think for a moment.  All right, we’re definitely going to need one hobbit to hurl the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, and it’s good to have a spare halfling in case you lose one to giant spiders, orcs, or a hungry house cat or something… but FOUR hobbits?  Come on; who are we kidding?  This fellowship is supposed to represent the unity of the diverse peoples of Middle Earth.  Hobbits account for what?  Maybe zero-point-two percent of the world’s population - even less if you measure by biomass.  Why do they make up nearly half the damn fellowship?  You think we couldn’t use a few more elven archers here?  Or what about one of Beorn’s descendants?  Come on: which is going to take out more orcs: a hobbit or a freaking were-bear?

Unfortunately, when the details were getting ironed out in Rivendell, Elrond was half-assing it.  Not too surprising, since he’s getting ready to retire to a nice gated community in the west.  You could see it on his smug face: “Three more spots on the fellowship?  Yeah, the hobbits will do.  Why the hell not?  I’m leaving, anyway!”

But that’s in the past.  Here we are now, with an army of orcs in wait and a demon of shadow and fire bearing down on us.  I know it’s harsh; I know it’s cold, but a leader’s got to know how to make sacrifices.  That’s why I need Pippin to run down a side tunnel screaming, “I’ve got the ring, I’ve got the ring!”

Don’t look at me that way: if the pipsqueak had kept his hands to himself, we’d have avoided this mess altogether.

Where was I?  Oh yes, while Pippin’s luring the Balrog away, that gives the rest of us some time to heroically survive crumbling staircases, dodge orcish arrows, and dart over the thin bridge.  At this point, we’d have plenty of time to escape while the Balrog’s roasting the Took like a marshmallow over a campfire, only… well… I just don’t feel right about leaving.

Besides, if we don’t avenge Pippin’s death, the other three halflings are going to be bitching about it all the way to Mordor.

So.  Time for Gimli to earn his keep.  The bridge of Khazad-dum isn’t the most structurally stable piece of engineering in the best of times; beneath the weight of a Balrog, it’s got to be on the verge of going on its own.

All I need Gimli to do is help it along.  A few well placed swings with his ax, and he should have a crack going.  Then I’d get everyone across and wait for old Durin’s Bane to show his face.

Now this is the important part: I’m not going anywhere near that damn bridge.  Not within ten feet.  Why?  Because the Balrog’s got a goddamned whip!

No, I’d keep a good distance from the bridge and shout insults across.  “Hey, we got a call from King Minos, and he wants you back in your maze!”  He takes a step, the bridge falls out from under him, and down he goes, tumbling end over end until he hits the bottom.

Not good enough?  He might still survive?  Fine.  Then I take up a collection of spare change from the fellowship and toss the coins over the edge.  If a quarter dropped by a construction worker can dent my Chevy from twenty stories, these things should be a damned meteor shower by the time they reach the bottom.  And, if not, no big deal: that Balrog isn’t climbing back up anytime this week.

So, with a little common sense, I could get eight out of nine members of the fellowship through all right, as well as rid us of some comic relief.  I just have to remember to tell Treebeard to take a stroll by Isengard, and I’ll need some other way of lighting the Beacons of Gondor.  That shouldn’t be too difficult: after all, they keep the fire burning right above the fuel.  I could probably knock it over with a rock or something.

All in all, not too shabby.


The Middle Room offers our sincere apologies to fans of Pippin and Billy Boyd.  And to the first place winner, we offer our congratulations... and our scorn.

Friday, October 2, 2009

DVD Review: Superman/Batman Public Enemies

Superman Batman Public Enemies, The new DC animated direct-to-DVD feature is based on a comic arc that was, for all intents and purposes, written to be as theatrical as possible.  It was already a movie, at least in spirit.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with remakes, the original was better.  Even more unfortunate is the sad truth that the original wasn't all that amazing itself.

There were, however, moments of the comic that were brilliant.  Most of these were cut from the DVD, and those that were present were watered down to the point we could only point and say, "That was really cool in the comic."

The issue at hand is one of mediums.  Comics offer room for narrative exposition, allowing the simultaneous thoughts of Batman and Superman to appear beside each other.  In the comic, this was used to both humorous and at times profound effect.  We assumed the makers of the DVD would find a way to adapt this.

Instead, they dropped it completely.  This created an awkward situation, where scenes appearing in the film lacked any of the original's depth.  The scene of Batman checking on Captain Marvel after knocking him down is unimportant: what matters are his thoughts.

This isn't to say that the movie was entirely bad: the fight with Metallo was excellent and was far better integrated into the story than in the comic.  Likewise, elements of the ending were well executed, though overall it still came off as awkward and badly planned.

While the animation was underwhelming - we're not the biggest fans of the original artwork, either - the voice acting remains topnotch.  This is largely due to the casting and voice direction done by Andrea Romano.  If you aren't familiar with her work, simply think of your favorite animated program from the last twenty years and check the list.  It's there, isn't it?

As a side note, we also want to say a word about the film's PG-13 rating.  After the brutality in some of the previous films, we were a bit surprised to see how restrained this was.  While we certainly don't require copious amounts of blood and violence in all of our films, we found the rating to be somewhat misleading.  If this was PG-13, so was every episode of Batman Beyond.

Public Enemies isn't bad, per se, but it's nothing we haven't seen before.  The Luthor presidency here was better alluded to during his candidacy in Justice League Unlimited, as was his madness and Superman's choice.

The fights never match the intensity of the best in the animated series or Superman/Doomsday.  The relationship between Batman and Superman, which is developed well here, has been done before, throughout the animated series.  We've seen Batman make the same choices, and Superman perform the same miracles.

This simply tows too close to its source.  It's bogged down by all the comic's problems without managing to duplicate its strengths.  While it's good for a viewing, particularly if you can see it free, it's not worth owning.

Fortunately, Green Lantern: First Flight, Wonder Woman, and Justice League: New Frontier are still available.  Buy those: you'll watch them again and again.  Against such superior animated fare, we'll offer Public Enemies two and a half stars and accept its thanks for not comparing it with The Incredibles as we often do.