Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Reviewed

There are traditions governing the passage of the old year into the new, the most significant of which is the 'best of' list.  Once, it is said, such lists were inscribed in print.  They called such things "newspaper articles" or "magazine reviews," and they were popular, if memory serves, in Ancient Rome and other fallen empires.

While these publications died out centuries ago, we still honor their tradition here in this sea of knowledge and madness that men call "The Internet."

In this spirit, The Middle Room has set out to build a list of our own: the twenty best movies we saw this year in theaters.  But, as is so often the case, our best laid plans fell apart: alas, we've only been to the theater eighteen times since January.

Instead, we've decided to offer something more complete.  A list, from least to most favorite of every movie we've seen this year.  You may recall that we attempted a similar feat a year and a half ago, when we analyzed a summer's worth of films.  But this is an expansion, incorporating a year of films at once.

Let us begin:

The Disappointing: A year ago, looking forward, we were sure this was going to be the year of science fiction, and there were a few solid movies.  But the list of disappointments focuses on the SF.  A lot of films that we've been watching and eagerly awaiting fell flat, at least in some regards.

18. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Our apologies in advance to those of you who liked this picture.  Aside from some decent performances, there is nothing redeeming in this movie.  Any enjoyment we took from viewing this film was at the movie's expense.  It was somewhat entertaining to witness just how horribly the filmmakers mangled this character and story.  It's not hard to understand how a Wolverine movie could be bad, but it boggles the mind that anyone could produce a Wolverine story this boring.

17. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
If we took this list less seriously, we might display this and the next two movies as a tie: indeed, our feelings shift and change.  But that would be cowardly.  So, we won't round the decimal point.  While we were wowed by the effects and action in Transformers, the story and dialogue was simply too bad to ignore.  And, as much as we loved Jetfire, the twins drag down the movie.  If it weren't for those two, this would have beaten GI Joe and Terminator easily.

16. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Once again, this is movie with positives and negatives.  The first third of the film is slow, the second third is fantastic, but the ending is a huge disappointment.  Several of the villains were handled well, but the heroes - with the exception of Snake Eyes, who would be perfect if it weren't for the awful lips on his costume - were abysmal.  The main characters, if we may speak frankly, were portrayed as geeks when they should have been written as jocks.

15. Terminator: Salvation
Once more, the interplay between writing and effects comes into play.  Overall, the visuals in Terminator: Salvation were fantastic, but the story failed to convey any force or power.  There were a few good twists here and there, but the movie fell far short of the first two installments.

The Enjoyable: You may breath a sigh of relief, if you like: we've passed a boundary.  The worst is behind us now: we move on instead to movies that may not have been world-changing, but were solid nonetheless:

14. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Good?  No, of course not.  But Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was even more fun than the first two.  Oozing with melodrama and self-importance, it evokes B fantasy movies from the 80's.  Sit back and enjoy.

13. Monsters Vs. Aliens
Dreamworks Animation is trying, and, in some ways, they're even finding some success.  We're still waiting for them to produce something exceptional, but until then we'll make do with films that are good.  Monsters Vs. Aliens worked more often than it didn't, though it could have benefited from a lesson in subtlety.  The characters were likable, the action was good, and enough jokes worked to offset those that didn't.

12. 9
It's astonishing that no one told the writers they needed to do better.  While the visuals are breathtaking and the tone is refreshingly consistent, the story is hollow and simplistic.  This could easily have been a major achievement in science fiction, but there's just not enough thought here.  We look at this movie as something of a consolation prize: an awesome action movie when we were hoping for ground breaking SF.

11. Zombieland
Zombieland is very much a good movie that neither crosses nor approaches excellence.  But it does exactly what it sets out to do: it provides a solid, enjoyable diversion that's part comedy and part horror.  In a perfect world, where such a format wasn't frowned upon, this should have been released direct-to-DVD, where it will work far better.

The Impressive: We did not intend a break to fall at number 10, but perhaps it is fitting.  From here on in, we are considering movies that we either deeply respect, love, or both.

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
This is a great work of film, though, like Zombieland, it will make a better DVD than a movie.  The Fantastic Mr. Fox demands multiple viewings: this is an elaborate and complex picture.  We felt at times that it was better than we were giving it credit for, though there were a few elements that seemed awkward and forced.  Our advice remains the same: wait until this is released on DVD, buy it, and watch it a dozen times.  It's far more cost-effective than going to the theater these days.

9. Avatar
We've reached the middle of our list and have come to Avatar, the most recent film we've seen.  We spent some time considering this, toying with placing it as high as number 7 and as low as 11.  Like most science fiction movies released this year, this one was balanced between the awe of its spectacle and the weakness of its script.  Fortunately for Avatar, the spectacle was particularly impressive, more an experience than a mere film.  And the problems in the script added a touch of unintentional comedy.  Even so, Avatar couldn't elicit the sort of emotional response and connection to characters we'd hope for.

8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
It's reached the point where we almost take this series for granted.  They come out like clockwork and are always solidly enjoyable.  While not particularly memorable in itself, the consistency Warner Bros. has shown in these film is admirable, and we always enjoy the movies.

7. District 9
A great deal of our admiration for District 9 is because of the movie's budget.  For a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood production, its makers crafted something that surpasses all but a handful of the big-budget films released this year.  The story wasn't amazing, but the realism of the movie was astonishing.

6. Watchmen
A guilty pleasure, perhaps.  We do not claim that Watchmen is better than District 9 - or Harry Potter, for that matter - merely that we enjoyed the experience more.  With the exception of a few scenes, the movie failed to recreate the feel of the comic, but they offered us the next best thing: a world where superheroes were imposed on our history and culture.  For the duration we were in the theater, they felt real.

The Excellent (Top 5): As we mentioned earlier, at the start of the year we anticipated a year of science fiction.  But looking back, we see instead a year of film for or about children.  Four of our top five movies fit this bill:

5. The Princess and the Frog
We have our reservations about this picture, as we discussed in depth, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a joy to watch.  That it represents a return to hand drawn animation, a style we deeply respect, is also reason to celebrate.

4. Star Trek
The only non-children's film in the top 5, Star Trek was by far the best big-budget live action picture of the summer.  A brilliantly crafted epic, Star Trek is simply an incredible experience.  Some long-time fans were disappointed by the movie's focus on style over substance and the deliberate choice to model its pacing more on Star Wars than its own origins.  While we sympathize with such criticism, we found the movie immensely enjoyable.

3. Coraline
The line between the top three movies was razor thin this year: we could easily have given any the top spot.  Coraline was a fantastic film that raised the bar on stop motion.  Further, by telling a compelling story and carefully controlling tone, they've done what few have managed: they've offered real competition for Pixar.  Between this, Up, The Princess and the Frog, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the academy award for animated picture might actually be interesting for once.

2. Where the Wild Things Are
An absolutely glorious film, Where the Wild Things Are offers a portrayal of childhood that's starkly realistic and uncompromising.  By using its source more as inspiration than anything else, the movie is free to honor it better than we'd have ever thought possible.  This movie is dark, tragic, and riveting from start to finish.

1. Up

We know it's anticlimactic, but the simple fact is this was the best film of the year and we cried like infants throughout.  A perfect mixture of whimsy and melancholy, Up again reaffirmed that Pixar is the single most consistently brilliant production company in the history of film.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Specials You Haven't Been Watching, Parts 3 - 8

We'd hoped to consider more Christmas specials, as we considered A Muppet Family Christmas and The Snowman.  We'd planned to give each of the below their own article, but it was not to be.  Other matters distracted us.  What matters, you may ask?  Why, the publication of a novel, itself related to the holidays.
Even so, we wanted to devote a little time to some of the Christmas specials we meant to get to.  Perhaps we'll have more time next year to delve further into these titles:

Prep and Landing
The newest of the specials we're discussing, this demonstrates, once again, why Disney is now in good hands.  For all intents and purposes a Pixar production, Prep and Landing combines the spirit of Rudolph with the Christmas cheer of Die Hard.  These elves are specialists, professionals trained to operate in harsh conditions and armed with tech that makes James Bond look like a caveman.  They are ninja, secret agents working in dangerous environments, risking their lives to ensure the path is ready for St. Nick.  Sweet enough for young children and exciting enough for fans of action, this is for everyone.

You can watch Prep and Landing on Hulu for another week.

Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas
Debatably, Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas doesn't belong on this list.  This is, in many ways, a list mirroring our series on underrated films, and, of everything on here, this is the most established, the most widely recognized as a classic.  Still, it has faded from public memory, and we felt it deserved to be remembered.  Made in 1977, this marks a noted shift in Muppet history.  It marks the first time we are aware of where Henson used Muppetry to create a world.  Utilizing elaborate sets, animatronics, and fantastic music, this opened the door for The Dark Crystal and other such productions.  Its influence can still be felt in films like The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  This didn't just affect Muppets: it showed the world that three-dimensional fantasy environments were possible years before the advent of CG.

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus
While certainly significant, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is not alone in shaping our conception of St. Nicholas.  In fact, the version most of us are familiar with seems to owe more to the 1902 book by L. Frank Baum.  Before Rankin/Bass adapted this special directly, they integrate elements and ideas into their earlier specials.  The bizarre world Santa Claus inhabits, as well as his association with fairytales and fantasy, is deeply rooted in Baum's work and sequels.  The abduction of Santa Claus first occurs in his work, and in later stories he meets Jack Pumpkinhead from the Oz franchise.  Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect, was born from these tales.

The Rankin Bass special is a fairly good adaptation, though it does drag in parts.  While we'd hesitate to recommend it to everyone, fans of stop motion and anyone interested in the history of Santa Claus will find it as intriguing as we do.

The Tick Loves Santa
While every episode of The Tick animated series is worth watching, the Christmas one is particularly inspired.  Here, The Tick confronts Multiple Santa, a thief dressed as Santa Claus with the power to duplicate himself.  But, as in all great art, The Tick's real struggle is internal: can he bring himself to fight Santa?  To put things in perspective, "The streets will flow red with Santas," does not make the top ten list of the episode's best lines.  Like almost everything else ever made, this can be found on youtube.

Christmas with the Joker/Holiday Knights/Comfort and Joy
The importance of Batman: The Animated Series and its successors cannot be overstated, nor can the quality of these shows.  Over the years, the show devoted two episodes of Batman and one of Justice League to the holidays.  It is ill advised to let the holidays pass without viewing all at least once.

Christmas with the Joker occupies a special place in our hearts.  It was this episode, seen so many years ago, that first drew us to the series.  It was one of the show's first, and, as such, there are moments when the animation falters or a scene stops making sense.  But it portrays the Joker with a psychotic and murderous whimsy one can't help but love, and it's impossible not to be drawn in by the episode's sincerity.

The second episode, Holiday Knights, came years later.  It features a series of short vignettes about the holidays.  The stories vary in tone, from the ridiculous absurdity of Poison Ivy and Harly Quinn's holiday shopping spree to Gordon's solemn New Year's tradition.

The final episode, Comfort and Joy, is similarly structured.  The story follows various members of the Justice League as they celebrate Christmas.  While aspects are, perhaps, unnecessarily zany, it's a lot of fun and surprisingly heartwarming.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
The opening of this special from 1979 is a tad underwhelming, featuring ice-skaters dressed as characters from Sesame Street.  Stick with it, though: once you're through the introduction, the show improves quickly.  Vintage Sesame Street is absolutely incredible: the area looks and feels like Queens, NY.  The streets are dirty, there's trash everywhere, and the cast even hops on a subway car at one point.  With this, we throw down the gauntlet.  Watch this special from start to finish, look us in the eye, and try to tell us it doesn't warm your heart.  Go ahead.  Try.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

If you are to consider it a movie, in the traditional sense, Avatar is best described as a cross between Dances with Wolves and Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.  Alternatively, it bears some resemblance to some of the surreal fantasy animation of the 70's, such as Wizards.

This is a movie, we suspect, that Ralph Bakshi would enjoy.  And why not: interspersed throughout the two and a half hour movie, there are, perhaps, thirty minutes or forty minutes of live-action footage.  The rest of the film, for all intents and purposes, is animated.  The live-action sequences feel somewhat out of place and tend not to work as well with the 3D technology.  The CG, meanwhile, is gorgeous.

We draw such comparisons not to insult Avatar, a movie we greatly enjoyed, but rather to attempt the Herculean feat of describing the indescribable.  It isn't that Avatar is unlike anything you've ever seen: on the contrary, it's exactly like many things you've seen.  It's just completely different.

Perhaps the best approach is to analyze Avatar in its component parts.  In our estimation, Avatar is approximately 45% National Geographic documentary, 25% mindless action, 15% plot, and 15% political commentary.

For those of you counting, that means 70% of Avatar is quite good.  The remaining 30% is still worthwhile, but not for the intended reasons.

Let us begin with the Natural Geographic aspect of the film.  A surprisingly large portion of the movie is spent exploring the alien world of... Pandora... in slow, methodical detail.  It's almost as if the "making of" DVD extra were incorporated into the film, complete with narration courtesy of a bizarre plot device.

Shockingly, all of this is incredibly interesting.  While it's hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, the world of... ugh... Pandora... is breathtaking, and its inhabitants, plant, and wildlife, are incredible to behold.  Most movies would ignore this detail to focus instead on character or plot, but Avatar wisely pushes those elements to the background.  Instead, it uses its time to explore the creatures: the dracomoths, raptolisks, and hippo-hammer-head-opotami that live among the dense jungles of fiber-opti-trees (yes, we know that Cameron has given these other names, but we like ours better).

About a quarter of the movie is spent on action: most of this is concentrated in the finale.  These scenes, while not quite as inspired as we might have hoped, are still intriguing, brutal, and beautiful.

Tragically, a full 15% of the movie is wasted on plot and characters, the only elements the glasses can't turn three-dimensional.  The story is about a group of warmongering space marines who seek to exploit the peaceful blue cat-indians of... Pandora.  The dialogue passes beyond bad, traveling into that realm of joyous, unintentional comedy.  As major characters die and face the consequences of their actions; as they shed tears and morn their dead, it is nearly impossible to keep from laughing.  Don't think us callous: the audience we were with was snickering throughout.  The characters are too simplistic and their problems are too blatantly contrived for anything to carry weight.

Likewise, the political message of the movie is less subtle than the director's cut of The Abyss.  The exploitation of Native People is wrong: we know.  Fighting terrorism with terror is neither a sustainable nor effective strategy: we're aware.  Corporate greed is bad: yes, we've heard that already - it was conveyed FAR more effectively in Aliens.

This is a film sewn together with cliche after cliche, and yet... Avatar would have been less effective without them.  Somehow, these cliches hold the picture together and keep it interesting.  Sure, we're laughing at the movie more than we're laughing with it, but we're still laughing.

If this is a movie, it is surely not a good one.  But, despite itself, it is somehow a brilliant one.  This can't quite match the absurdist madness of The Chronicles of Riddick, and yet it comes as close as anything we've seen in years.  On a scale of one to five, where five is Vin Diesel's epitome of space operatic zaniness, Avatar receives four and a half glowing bio-luminescent stars.

We wish all bad movies were this good.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

Let's get this out of the way: The Princess and the Frog is, among other things, a triumph of animation, a beautifully crafted film, and a return to an art form many feared dead.

But so was The Little Mermaid, and we've little interest in seeing that again.  Sure, this is the best 2D Disney animated movie since The Lion King, but there hasn't been much competition in the meantime.

The question was never whether this would be a good movie: the question is, "How good was it?"  And the answer is somewhat complicated.

The Princess and the Frog was created to accomplish two interconnected goals: to create a "classic" Disney-princess movie, and to do so with a black princess, the first in the company's history.

It was a noble aspiration.  Not quite as noble as it would have been in, say, 1950, but better late (even very late) than never.  Unfortunately, the film's portrayal of race was clumsy and awkward.  It doesn't so much come off as racist (as some have suggested) as it seems... timid.

The movie exerted a great deal of effort informing us that Tiana, its lead, has overcome a great deal of adversity.  But, frankly, we never see that adversity (at least not in a mundane, non-magical form).  With the exception of a pair of bankers, every white character in the film is respectful, compassionate, and friendly towards Tiana.  While the wealthiest characters are white (not to mention stupid), they aren't cruel or dismissive.  The black characters are, overall, less affluent, but they seem content.  What's particularly problematic is that there's no acknowledgment that there might be a reason for the economic disparity.  This is, frankly, a troubling omission that could easily be misinterpreted.

Similarly, the movie's attempts at feminism come off as double-edged.  While it's nice finally having Disney princesses who are allowed to fight their own battles, the relationship between the prince and Tianna has troubling implications.  Self-obsessed princes are nothing new - not even to Disney movies - but this one is a hedonistic womanizer.  We're not entirely comfortable with a generation of girls being told they should find such men and expect them to change.

Even so, the movie did an admirable job of developing his character over time.  Messages aside, by the end of the movie there's little question as to why Tiana falls in love with her prince, even in frog form.

Enough about political implications and messages: let us consider the movie underneath.

As we said at the start, it is an excellent picture.  There are some pacing issues, as well as a sequence or two which does nothing to move the plot (but we're seven decades late to start complaining about THOSE in Disney films).

We do want to draw particular attention to a pair of characters: the alligator and the firefly.  From the trailers, we expected to hate these two.  On the contrary, they made the movie.  While these were evocative of Disney characters from the 70's, the hand of Pixar could be felt guiding them to greatness.  The alligator and firefly are the heart and soul of the movie, respectively.  And, make no mistake, they shine brightly.

The music was strong; if anything, some of the songs could have been a little longer and more developed.  The one exception to this was the drivel playing over the gorgeously animated closing credits.

Some have complained that the villain, Dr. Facilier, represents a negative stereotype.  While there's certainly a case to be made, this is still one of Disney's best villains in decades.  Voodoo doctors may not be historically or politically correct, but there's no denying they are awesome.  While it's FAR too early to compare him to the level of Cruella De Vil, he makes Jafar look dull and flat.

And we like Jafar.

We also feel a need to tip our hat to the movie's use of one, particular Disney archetype: the wishing star.  At the start of the movie, Tiana's father warns her that such things can only take her so far, and the movie never abandons this idea.  The movie explores what's become almost a cliche of the genre, and it does so in surprising and refreshing depth.

In fact, there's a sense in which the movie is less a classic Disney movie than it is a movie ABOUT classic Disney.  In many ways, The Princess and the Frog feels more like a follow-up to Enchanted than Snow White.

While this makes for a better movie, it is a little troubling that Disney's first black princess appears in a movie about Disney-princess movies rather than a "traditional" Disney-princess movie of her own.

But, then again, we may be over thinking this.

Against the five stars of Sleeping Beauty - the greatest of this genre - The Princess and the Frog receives four.  While we may have minor issues and complaints, there's no denying it feels good to see a fantastic hand-drawn Disney animated feature once more.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas Specials You Haven't Been Watching, Part 2: Raymond Briggs' The Snowman

Comparisons between this British animated special and Frosty the Snowman are as inevitable as they are absurd.  Reduced to a sentence, the stories are more or less the same: a child builds a snowman which comes to life and together they travel to meet Santa Claus.

Indeed, imagine Frosty if it were silent, save for a hauntingly beautiful score.  Imagine if it were animated with love and inspiration, using hand drawn animation to explore a three dimensional world.  Imagine if Frosty the Snowman was about the magic and wonder of childhood and the tragedy of its loss.

The Snowman isn't a complicated work, but it is a brilliant one.  It is a dream-like fantasy that explores the power of animation in a manner you've likely never seen.

Versions can be found on Youtube, though we suggest picking up the DVD to fully appreciate the depth of the animation.

Also, be aware there are multiple introductions which have been made for different releases.  With all due respect to David Bowie, be sure you get the original which was done by Raymond Briggs.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Alderaan Effect

In our continuing efforts to explore and enlighten - this blog is, if nothing else, intended first and foremost as source of education - we wanted to discuss a phenomenon of some intrigue.

We call it the Alderaan Effect.

Existing primarily in science fiction and fantasy works, the Alderaan Effect refers to a carefully constructed scenario in which an entire world, culture, or civilization is annihilated without disrupting the upbeat, action-packed flow of the story.

This little understood and largely unstudied phenomenon is of course named for Leia Organa's home world, destroyed in Star Wars with only a few moments of reflection.  Fundamentally, the action had no major emotional effect on the audience, nor was it meant to.  Instead, it was done to make the villains seem more villainous.

Of course, this single act of destruction makes conventional genocide seem civil in comparison: the death of a world should, by rights, be horrific beyond belief.  To play this down in a manner that doesn't enrage or disgust the viewer requires care and balance.

We saw this more recently in last summer's Star Trek reboot.  If you've yet to see this film, you should be aware that spoilers follow.

At any rate, the movie involved the destruction of Vulcan and the deaths of untold billions.  The movie wasted little time grieving, instead moving on to further adventure and excitement.  While there was some sorrow at the loss of Spock's mother, the primary emotions displayed were rage and determination.

It occurs to us that this seems relatively consistent in applications of the Alderaan Effect.  If we are shown the pain that would doubtlessly be caused by such a horrific loss of life, we would likely dwell on that.  If we are instead shown righteous rage, we can instead sit back and enjoy the show.  In addition, there are barriers between the audience and those who perish.  The citizens of Alderaan are never shown, and the Vulcans who die are, by and large, emotionless beings we can disassociate with.

And, in both cases, those responsible get their comeuppance.

Variations of the Alderaan Effect exist in countless movies, such as Independence Day, Zombieland, and even Galaxy Quest, where we learn in a side note that the peace-loving aliens we've been following are the last of their race.  We expect a similar strategy is employed in 2012, but we haven't enough interest in the movie to go find out.

On some level, the Alderaan Effect is deeply troubling, reflecting our ability to overlook the horrors that are just beyond our perspective.  On the other hand, it makes for good movies.

And besides, the films we've discussed have nothing on DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths....