Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Middle Room will not be shown tonight...

Instead we bring you Mainlining Christmas.

The Middle Room will return after the holidays at its regularly scheduled time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

DVD Review: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is quite a bit better than its predecessor, Public Enemies.  In fact, unlike Public Enemies, we actually enjoyed it more than the comic arc it was based on.  Granted, this wasn't a particularly high bar to ascend: the comic, while containing a handful of fantastic moments, just didn't succeed in making Kara - the story's central character - sympathetic or interesting.  The movie, on the other hand, did manage this feat, and worked as a result.

In some ways, the source material for this storyline was easier to adapt than that for Public Enemies.  As we explained in last year's review, our favorite moments in Public Enemies were internal, and as such wound up amputated from the DVD release.  The Supergirl arc didn't have this problem: the best scenes were action or dialogue.  Everything we wanted was present, and a few of the worst scenes were rewritten.

Unfortunately, all of this care was only enough to raise the movie to the level of "pretty good."  Despite their best effort, the filmmakers were still restrained by several absurd plot twists and poor dialogue, almost all of which we recall from the comics.

We should probably digress from a moment to talk about the movie's infamous title.  The comic series had "Supergirl" in the title, appropriate as the story revolves around the arrival of Kara Zor-El, Superman's cousin.  The director has said she'd have preferred this title, but it was decided higher up that Supergirl wouldn't sell.

Of course we find such studio interference idiotic.  We presume that any comics fan who would avoid a dvd with the name "Supergirl" on the cover would likely also avoid a dvd they'd heard was about Supergirl, regardless what it was called.

Ultimately, we're less concerned with a movie's title than its content.  Warner Bros could have called it Batman/Superman 2: X-Men United, and we wouldn't hold it against the movie.  And, when push comes to shove, this version is fairer to its female characters - particularly Supergirl - than the comics were.  This was most notable during the finale, where Supergirl was given a far larger role.  It's also worth noting that throughout the character designs were less offensive (though we still miss the visual style of JLU).

There are some good moments and ideas in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.  And there's some good animation.  The voice acting is less consistent than we're used to, but, despite our skepticism, Summer Glau managed to carry the role and steal the movie.  It's also always nice to hear Kevin Conroy's voice coming from Batman's mouth.

The real issue with this is that we've seen it all before, and we've seen it better.  JLU used all these characters to far better effect, covering many of the same ideas and battles.  To any who haven't seen that series, watch those first.  This is good, but JLU was great.  So are the animated DCU films Justice League: New Frontier, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight, and Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Against the best of those, we'll award Apocalypse a relative three out of five stars.  If, like us, you're a connoisseur of these films, this is worth viewing, but we can't offer more than a luke warm recommendation to anyone else.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Movie Review: Megamind

Megamind is a fine movie; nothing more, nothing less.  To put it in perspective, it is at best the sixth best superhero comedy film which does not feature characters from the Marvel or DC Universe, coming in behind The Incredibles, Sky High, Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, The Mask, and Mystery Men.  If we to consider Marvel and DC properties, Megamind also falls behind the direct-to-DVD comedies Wonder Woman and Hulk Vs.  If television programs are included, Megamind is likewise bested by The Powerpuff Girls, both iterations of The Tick, Batman: Brave and the Bold, and Word Girl.
That's off the top of our heads.  There are certainly others.

This list is not intended to put down Megamind, merely to illustrate the reality that this isn't exactly unexplored territory.  The filmmakers at Dreamworks Animation can take some solace in knowing that they have indeed produced a film superior to My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

At any rate, beside Despicable Me (a film we'll most likely get around to watching eventually), the most obvious film Megamind needs to be compared against is The Incredibles, and there is a sense of symmetry here that is profoundly significant.  Back in the 1960's, when Marvel emerged as the industry leader in terms of innovation - not to mention sales - there was a period where DC attempted to replicate their success by duplicating their formula.  While this sometimes resulted in good comics, they never came close to their rivals.

So it is with Megamind.

Oh, there's plenty in this movie to entertain us.  The three lead characters are likable and most of the jokes are solid.  With the exception of a prolonged Marlon Brando rift, none of the gags were grating, and even that was tolerable.

The main problem with Megamind was a lack of commitment.  The movie either needed to have some gravitas or it needed to set aside moralizing and play up the dark humor.

For a few brief moments at the beginning, when Megamind is breaking out of prison, unveiling massive devices, destroying property, and just having fun, the movie is at the top of its game.  But we didn't really expected this to last, and indeed, he quickly has a predictable change of heart.

There's nothing wrong with that, either.  When he first realizes the how utterly meaningless his existence is without adversity, there are some fascinating parallels with Wanted (the comic, not the movie).  This "twist" closes the door on darkhearted fun, but offers an opportunity for some actual drama.  Pity they squandered it, opting instead for slapstick.

Watching The Incredibles, it's obvious that Brad Bird appreciates the humor intrinsic to comic book heroes, but he also has a deep respect and understanding of his source material.  The same can be said of every other film listed in the first paragraph of this review.  But not Megamind.  At least not on the same level.

It's clear the writers of Megamind find superheroes funny on a superficial level.  Yes, they wear capes and tights.  Yes, their cities have names like Metropolis.  And, to the writers' credit, they were able to churn out some funny gags.  However, naming the city "Metrocity" only invites comparison to Townsville and The City - two better uses of the exact same joke - and Megamind just can't compete.

The odd thing is that there was room to develop the story into something more effective.  The title character and his best friend, Minion, were fantastic characters, as was the obligatory intrepid reporter.  But there was only one moment in the movie that had any real weight: when Megamind was told off by said reporter, and was asked, quite simply, what he'd expected.  Everything else felt by-the-book.

The character's back story was more cartoon than comic book.  The initial premise - Megamind was the last son of his dying world, rocketed towards Earth to seek out his destiny, only to get shown up by the last son of a neighboring dying world also being sent to Earth - was actually quite inspired.

But as soon as they reach Earth, the premise was merely played for laughs.  It's not hard to imagine why: it is, fundamentally, a parody of Superman's origin.  And it is funny.  Just not for long.

This is a common error among those trying to parody superhero back stories.  While straight absurdity may amuse most audiences, it makes actual fans of comics cringe, not because they're making fun of Superman, but because they have no idea what they're making fun of.

The fact remains, the silver age back story of Lex and Clark in Smallville is significantly more ridiculous and absurd than any superheroes-in-school jokes the makers of Megamind can cobble together.

In place of motivation, Megamind's youth is a montage of slapstick.  He fares better than his nemesis, however, who is grossly inconsistent.  Is Metroman a showboating jackass out for the glory, a self-obsessed idiot who kept saving the day until he grew bored, or a benevolent genius, who perceives more than he seems to?  Any of these could have worked.  Instead, we're left with a character whose entire personality, intellect, and powers are rewritten around each scene.

And yet, despite all of these flaws, the movie works.  This is a solid three star movie against The Incredibles's five.  This is ultimately worth seeing.

The problem is that there are so many other superhero movies and television shows that you should see first.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movie Review: Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Professional critics are split neatly in half in their opinion of Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: the film is currently holding at exactly 50% on the Tomatometer.  What's more, a cursory glance at the synopses of the reviews verifies that the schism lies deep: the critics seem to either love or hate the film.

We went to the movie curious to see which side was right.  Walking out, we found ourselves in complete agreement with all of them.

Legends of the Guardians is indeed a beautiful and awe-inspiring trip into a fantasy world.  It's an exciting and thrilling viewing experience.

It's also cheap pablum; pathetic dialogue uttered by two-dimensional characters fighting to defeat Nazi-owls and to stand up for the power of dreams.

And therein we approach the common thread between these disparate points of view.  Like so many other movies being released these days, Legends of the Guardians owes a debt to the 1980's.  Sure, the novels it's officially based on were all released in the past decade, but the spirit of the movie is pure eighties.

In fact, we can think of no better description of the movie than watching the opening credits of Labyrinth in slow motion while a bottle of glitter is slowly being shaken out in front of the screen.  Play Dead Can Dance loudly in the background, and you'll have faithfully recreated the best scenes from the movie.  Play a power ballad, and you'll appreciate the depths the film can sink to.

The movie is a difficult one to reconcile.  There are scenes of utter amazement, owls soaring into battle with weapons building off their strengths and forms.  These aren't merely excellent fights: these may be the best anthropomorphic animal fights every made.

Then there's an obnoxious owl with a lute who's present for comic relief.  Actually, with the possible exception of the main character and his teacher, every protagonist who's onscreen for longer than three minutes seems to be comic relief first and foremost.  And none of them are in the least bit funny.

To their credit, all of these owls become competent when necessary, though only through the graces of a montage.

The movie was directed by Zach Snyder, making it his second adaptation in a row to feature a owl-based hero following in the tradition of his mentor.  The war, though, is pure 300.

The only thing missing from the battles is blood, a casualty of the PG rating.  This omission is somewhat striking, as the film - to its credit - isn't afraid to amass a body count.  Watching the movie, we could help but think of all the extraneous blood spilled in Zach Snyder's previous films.  If they'd used a few gallons less in 300, for example, no one would ever have missed it.  And those gallons could have been put to good use here.  Would this movie really have fared worse with a PG-13 rating?

In terms of passing judgment, we can do little but hold this against Watership Down, the pinnacle of animated anthropomorphic war movies.  The visual effects here are easily worthy of five stars, but the tragic lack of substance cuts that in half.

As such, we're giving Legends of the Guardians two and a half relative stars.  This doesn't mean it's not worth seeing, however.  Provided you accept the mind-numbing simplicity of the writing, there's plenty of spectacle to make the film worthwhile.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

DVD Review: Batman: Under the Red Hood

Despite the new cast, Under the Red Hood, in many ways feels like it's part of the 90's animated series.  It isn't, of course: the continuity explored is more or less the same as the comic's, though the story plays out differently than when it appeared in print.  But the art and design echo the series, down to the interplay between fire and shadow and the cut of Batman's cowl.

The story, our readers are no doubt aware, deals with the death and resurrection of Jason Todd, the second Robin.  If by some happenstance you were not aware of this, do not fault us: we've spoiled nothing.  Unlike the comics, no effort was made to construct the story as a mystery.  Aware their audience knew the "twist" going in, the filmmakers dropped it.  The movie doesn't dangle the identity of the Hood for any appreciable amount of time or treat it like a revelation.

Instead, the story focuses on the psychology of those involved.  And that is why it works.

Under the Red Hood reminds us of Mask of the Phantasm.  It's carefully constructed and eloquently delivered.  It's not epic: the characters are waging war for their souls, not to save Gotham or stop an alien invasion.  It's dark without being gratuitous; dramatic without being sappy.

And, most importantly, they've delivered a fantastic version of the Joker.  Connoisseurs of the character will detect similarities with Ledger's version, along with echoes of the Joker in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. 

This is a more calculating version of the character than those usually presented.  He's sadistic and psychotic, but nowhere near as random than, say, the Joker who generally appeared in the animated series.  He's a far cry from the Joker we'd have imagined, and yet there are no fewer than three scenes we'd include on a top 20 list of our favorite Joker moments in film or TV.

The voice acting is solid, though it's hard not to miss the cast of the animated series.  As all things do, Under the Hood has its flaws, the most notable of which being its portrayal of Nightwing.  While they certainly give him some great scenes, he's in far too little of the movie.  And, when he does appear, he comes off as a sidekick, not a hero in his own right.

In terms of quality, Under the Hood falls just short of New Frontier, but it comes extremely close.  It's now available on Netflix, and we strongly suggest seeing it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a great movie, in that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do.  The story is competently told, the tone is conveyed, the direction and acting are good, and the visual style is incredible.  But, with the exception of that final aspect, the movie still managed to disappoint us, not because it failed to achieve its goal, but rather because we never clicked with the movie.

Simply put, we weren't really compatible with Edgar Wright's vision for this movie.

There were several wedge issues, beginning with this version of Scott Pilgrim.  Many have blamed the casting, but we actually rather liked Michael Cera in the role.  It was the role itself that grated on us.  Scott was whiny, shallow, and self-obsessed.  This wasn't exactly a flaw, though, because it was clearly intentional: the movie was a story of self-discovery and personal growth.

That, incidentally, was our second issue.  We've seen these sorts of character journeys before: they're a dime a dozen on the sitcoms we grew up with.  From this movie, we wanted something a little lighter or, barring that, something as original as its appearance.

And, from a visual standpoint, the movie was absolutely awesome.  The fights were fast paced, intriguing, and fun, and the effects were a joy to watch.  Unfortunately, the movie dragged when the punches stopped.  The characters, while adequately developed, weren't particularly likable, making it difficult to care what happened to them.
Still, where the substance disappoints, the style reigns.  Michael Cera was an action hero, and an imposing one at that.  The battles were engaging and exciting, and the movie is well worth a trip to the theater.

In terms of tone, the movie almost reminded us of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; a jarring experience since we'd entered expecting something along the lines of Shaun of the Dead.  Of course, Eternal Sunshine offered a more original story to support its innovative use of effects.

The visual style is almost reminiscent of Speed Racer, which time and reflection has elevated to five-star status.  Against that metric, we award Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World three and a half stars.

Scott Pilgrim demands respect, and the action sequences are a joy.  Unfortunately, the movie is easier to respect than to love.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Underrated Part 7: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

It is with a degree of shame that we discuss this film: shame because we, like so many, failed to realize what this movie was when it was released.  Indeed, when it was in the theaters last fall, we opted to stay home.  We'd just been to see 9 and didn't feel the need to rush to another CG film.

We'd have been far better off skipping 9 and seeing this instead.  Not only is it a better movie; it turns out it's better science fiction.

If we could offer up one point in our defense it would be this: we had no idea it was SF at all.  Sure, there was a scientist in the commercials, but that hardly earns a movie the badge of science fiction. 

In this case, however, there can be no doubt.

Despite its use of slapstick, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs uses over-the-top and impossible technology as a lens to consider issues and ideas relevant to today.  Plus, they integrate a number of classic images and tropes of the genre; never in a way that breaks the tone or intrudes on the story, but rather in a manner that enhances the experience of watching.

Also, the visuals are beautiful, the jokes are absolutely hilarious, and the characters are fascinating.  All around, this is a great movie.  A great movie with rat-birds.  God, we love the rat-birds.  Even more than the walking television, a brilliant character in his own right.

There are moments when we thought the movie was about to fall apart, when things began pushing the boundary between absurd and wacky.  But, rather than spin out of control, the filmmakers managed to pull things together, no matter how bizarre the situations became.  There's a rule in film making that you never show a loaded gun in the first part without showing it fired.  Well, this is a movie with dozens of loaded guns.  But, instead of guns, they're rat-birds, peanut allergies, and a talking monkey voiced by Neil Patrick Harris.  These aren't throwaway jokes: they're woven into the story.  The resolution is, in part, extrapolated from these elements, but they're only pieces of the puzzle.

So, it's good.  But how good is it?

Allow us to be clear by retracting a statement we made when we reviewed How to Train Your Dragon:
"We are still waiting for a CG movie that's better than Pixar's worst film.  We're waiting for Dreamworks - or anyone else - to make a CG movie that was better than Cars."
It turns out that movie already existed.  We just hadn't seen it yet.  While Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a long way from movies like Up or Toy Story 3, it's better than Cars or A Bug's Life.  To date, it remains the only non-Pixar CG movie we've seen better than Pixar's worst films.  That's a major achievement for something based on a book everyone - us included - thought shouldn't be adapted in the first place.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Inception is a somewhat insidious film, striking a chord that's difficult to place.  It is familiar, though not easily identifiable.  Elements resonate with numerous genres and films.  It feels almost like a cross between Casino Royale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and AI.

The movie missing from this list may be the most telling.  It wasn't until hours after seeing it that it occurred to us there were parallels between this and The Matrix.  Indeed, stripped of all else, both films were about the struggle between the competing forces of reality and dreams.  Both delve into the mind and epistemology.

Nevertheless, the two couldn't feel less similar.  In many ways, Inception is the movie that The Matrix wasn't.  Here, the style is understated, subtle, while the concepts take center stage.  It is measured and considered, thoughtful and probing.  It is, from the perspective of the science fiction fan, more pure, less diluted by cheap humor, silly leather, and Keanu Reeves.  Where The Matrix is a SF/action movie, Inception is SF/thriller.

And it's very good.  So good, in fact, it's difficult to imagine any fan of the genre disliking the picture.

However, it's equally hard imagining many loving it.  Inception is the kind of movie that intrigues and engages you.  But it doesn't enthrall or excite.  This is not the kind of movie you watch again and again.

But once or twice more wouldn't hurt.  There are a few moments we'd like to revisit for clarification.

Coming so soon on the heels of Predators, Inception offers the second good science fiction movie in as many weeks, a rare gift.  It's also one of the best spy thrillers we've seen in some time.

On a scale between one and five stars, where five equals Blade Runner, Inception scores four.  This is a far more intelligent film than we're used to seeing in the summer.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Movie Review: Predators

If there was any question before, there is none now.  Last summer was the year of 80s cartoons; this is the summer of 80s action films.  And, as those of us on the east coast are aware, this year it grows hot.

But to say Predators is an 80s action movie does it a disservice.  Predators is what 80s action movies wanted to be but couldn't quite pull off.  It's the platonic ideal of the 80s action movie.

Before it was released, the question being posed was whether Predators was a better movie than Predator 2.  Rather than answer that, we'd rather pose an alternate question.

Was Predators better than the original?

Before answering this, we should pause to reflect on the original Predator, to consider its merits, as well as its weaknesses.  It is certainly a fantastic movie, produced with more ingenuity than money, staring the world's most iconic action star.  It introduced one of science fiction's most famous monsters to the world, and provided a climactic action sequence that remains among the best ever produced.

But it is far from prefect.  The pacing of the original was inconsistent, and, while it used them mercifully sparingly, their were some groan-worthy lines of dialogue.

Predators, in contrast, opens at a breakneck pace.  It offers no unnecessary exposition and no flashbacks of any kind.  Not a single frame of the movie is wasted on planet Earth.  Not a second.  Character interactions are quick and smartly written.  These characters are no deeper or more complex than those in the original, but, by and large, they're far more effective.  With two exceptions, any member of this piecemeal team could have carried the movie.  Those exceptions, incidentally, are not accidental.  The two "odd men out" practically steal the show.

Which brings us to Adrien Brody, a man who, by rights, should never have been cast in an action movie.  He's thin, weak, and timid.  The last person you'd expect to fill Schwarzenegger's shoes.

After watching Predators, we're ready to see Brody cast as Conan.  Only it would be somewhat redundant, as that was more or less the part he played in the film.

Conan.  With an American accent.  And a gun.  Fighting beside several of the world's most badass mercenaries, killers, and soldiers.  Against three brilliant and merciless alien hunters.

Yeah.  It was better than the original.

While the final act of Predators wasn't quite as amazing as the showdown in part one, as a whole it has fewer flaws.  And, start to finish, it's solidly entertaining.  There were a few blatantly CG explosions that we could have done without, but that's hardly worth complaining about.  We were also a bit surprised by how much Predators echoed Pitch Black, though this is more an academic observation than a complaint.

While it was better than the original Predator, it falls short of Alien, which is really the bar SF action/horror is measured by.  Even so, if Alien is a five star picture, Predators deserves four.

Also, we'd like to take a moment to bow to the genius that chose the music that plays at the start of the opening credits.  It hardly seems a stretch to conclude that was probably Rodriguez's call.  While there will likely be some disagreement, we consider it a fantastic decision.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Movie Review: Jonah Hex

Sometimes a brilliant movie comes out that critics simply can't grasp or appreciate.  In recent years, Speed Racer stands as the archetype of such a film.  In other cases, a movie is released that is certainly bad, yet enjoyable nonetheless.  Movies like Ghost Rider fit this bill; neither the critics nor fans of the comic thought much of that picture, and yet we found it entertaining.

Indeed, when we walked into the theater today, Ghost Rider was what we were hoping for: the reviews had been too uniformly bad to hope for more.

Instead, we got another Daredevil.  Jonah Hex failed to live up to the characters potential, failed to utilize its actors, and failed to deliver a level of entertainment beyond what you'd expect from mediocre television.

We should mention now that if you're sensitive to spoilers you should keep reading.  The shock of learning some of the movie's secrets may keep you from seeing the film, and, on your deathbed, no doubt you will think back on the two hours of your life you saved and how you were able to put them to better use.

To truly understand the movie, you need to grasp just one scene.  Just one.  Jonah Hex has tracked an associate of his nemesis to a pit fight, where one of the combatants is a mutant snake-man with acidic spit.

Now, ultimately, the snake-man offers some of the more interesting effects in the movie.  He's quick, brutal, and kind of cool.  He's only on screen for a few seconds, and Hex never fights or interacts with him.  He just knocks the guy he's fighting into the pit then leaves, so we never see the snake-man kill or eat anyone.

Outside, Hex runs across some guys about to kill a dog.  He rescues the dog, and it winds up becoming a slightly more significant character than Megan Fox's.

At no point in any of this is the audience interested or engaged.  Only... confused.  Why is this happening?  Why isn't the snakeman more significant?

Throw these onto the pile of unanswered questions you'll ask.  "How does the 'nation killing machine' work?"  "Why does Hex's spiritual battle occur in a dull, plain desert that's less interesting than where he's physically fighting?"  "Why are these scenes in the movie?"  "What the hell did he just say?"  And, of course, "Why in God's name are we watching this?"

At least it was better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It doesn't matter whether you want to rate this against the best comic book movies or the best westerns: it's not doing better than one and a half stars.

There's some entertainment to be found in watching it fall apart, but that's all it really offers.  If you're interested in what could have been, track down the Batman: The Animated Series episode, Showdown, which features Jonah Hex and Ra's Al-Ghul.  Like Wild Wild West, there are several parallels to that classic episode.  They still haven't gotten it right, though.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

It seems almost pointless to mention that Toy Story 3 was a fantastic movie: Pixar is, after all, in the business of producing fantastic movies.  There's little indication they still remember how to make movies that are anything less than fantastic.

Even so, Toy Story 3 was something of an ambitious undertaking, because it was fundamentally unnecessary.  Toy Story 2 had already taken the series in a darker direction, exploring issues of abandonment and obsession.  They'd addressed the idea that Andy would move on one day, that nothing lasts forever.  Was there really value in confronting that day?

It turns out there was, because Pixar perceived a rare opportunity.  Toy Story 3 isn't about abandonment, loss, or death, though all of these concepts are incorporated into the film.  This isn't merely another movie about accepting change or growing up: that happened between movies.

Toy Story 3 is about saying good-bye.  It's hard to watch the last few scenes without thinking about the end of The House on Pooh Corner.

We should mention a few additional things about Toy Story 3.  The first is that there are several moments in the movie young children may find difficult.  Pixar does not shy away from dark moments, and this is no exception.  The film goes to some dark places, from a daycare run with Nazi-like precision to what can only be described as the gates of Hell itself.  This movie is perfect for those who grew-up with the franchise, but it might be a bit grown-up for those who didn't.

The new characters here are, by and large, excellent.  Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear fills the Prospector's shoes nicely, and Ken captures the essence of the toy line to a degree that's astonishing.  In addition, we were pleasantly surprised to see a plush version of Miyazaki's Totoro appear in a minor role.

It should also be noted that the last third of Toy Story 3 is vastly superior to the rest.  While the movie is always good, it starts a little slow and picks up momentum as it moves along.  The only other critique we have is more directed at the series as a whole: despite his symbolic and emotional importance, Andy was given very little screen time in any of the three films.  We've been told several times that he's a great kid, but we never really got a chance to know him as a character.

Against almost any movie - live action or animated - produced by any company other than Pixar, Toy Story 3 would be almost beyond reproach.  But ours is a relative scale, and as such we must consider Toy Story against the best.  So, against the likes of Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, Toy Story 3 earns 4 out of 5 possible stars.  If it weren't for the somewhat slow first half, the movie might have had a chance at the full 5.

While it's not essential you see it in 3D, the added depth did enhance the film.  We doubt we'd have been any less impressed with the 2D version - after all, Pixar's greatest strength lies in their ability to tell a story - but it's still worth a few extra bucks for the experience.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Futures Market 2010, Part 3

Last year, it took four installments to complete the summer.  This year, we are wrapping up our prognostication after a mere three.

Yet somehow, against reason or logic, we are looking at the same number of films: twenty.  Is this indicative of some unrecognized law of nature; a conservation of movies, perhaps?  Or have we merely spent less time looking at each film?

Such investigation will need wait for another day.  It is time to proceed:

Inception (July 16)
Estimated Tomatometer: 80%
While the earliest teaser offered no context or information, the trailer provided the concept and genre.  This is, it seems, a science fiction movie positing technology which can be used to enter dreams.

Will it be good?  There are few guarantees in film, and this is not one of them.  However, we would describe its chances as far better than average.

With science fiction, one is better off listening to word of mouth than critics, anyway.  As a whole, they have a tendency of entirely missing the point when wandering from the fields they know into the geeklands.  If we hear good things from those we trust, we will likely go.  If not, we may wait for DVD.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (July 16)
Estimated Tomatometer: 65%
To us, this looks like it will be an okay movie, perhaps even crossing the threshold into pretty good or decent.  There is a chance - a faint chance, but a chance nonetheless - it may be better, but we will speak no more of such fringe possibilities for fear of setting unrealistic expectations.

There's little to be gained by belaboring the point that the existence of this movie is bewildering, to say the least.  We can only pretend to imagine the series of discussions and corporate decisions that had to be made and signed off on before this could be moved into production.

Nevertheless, there are too many interesting effects and amusing moments in the trailer to dismiss the movie yet.

Beastly (July 30)
Estimated Tomatometer: 38%
The trailer for this movie suggests it may be - to our knowledge - the first major film derivative of the Twilight Saga.  A modern adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, it looks, well, awful, and we expect the critics will respond accordingly.  On the other hand, Neil Patrick Harris appears in the movie, so perhaps it won't be all bad.

Unless we hear that it's far different than we anticipate, it's highly unlikely we'll bother seeing it.

The Expendables (August 13)
Estimated Tomatometer: 75%
This may not be a remake, but it's certainly a tribute to the 1980's action movie.  Assuming this is at least decent, we expect the majority of critics will appreciate where it's coming from and give it a pass.  Even so, it's not exactly our cup of tea, and we'll likely skip it unless we hear it's better than we're anticipating.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (August 13)
Estimated Tomatometer: 75%
In The Middle Room, we tend to lean towards comic books chronicling the exploits of superheroes.  Those other books seldom capture our interest.

That doesn't mean we don't respect them.

We've heard, from those who would know, that Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is one of the best series out there.  Perhaps, one day, we'll track this down.  Until then, there is little question that the trailer looks amazing.  After being disappointed by Kick Ass! we're hesitant to become too excited.  But it's hard to avoid when the trailer looks this good.

Piranha 3D (August 27)
Estimated Tomatometer: 35%
We have no real interest in this, but felt it deserved inclusion.  To their credit, the trailers do a fair job of conveying the utter absurdity of this remake.  We've no idea whether this will be, in its own way, good, though we find it unlikely whatever merits are present will be appreciated by the critics.

And summer shall end, though the movies will not.  No, if Plato is to be believed, the movie, the blockbuster, exists independently of mankind's simplistic attempts to reflect its perfect form upon the movie screen.  And if one of us should ever break free our shackles and wander out of the theater into the realm of ideals and gaze upon the true summer movie in all its glory, how then would we describe it to those still sitting in the theater staring at projections upon the screen?

And would they even listen, or merely shush us for talking during their show?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Movie Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

As a rule of thumb, movies based on video games are poor in quality, as are video games based on movies.  The movie, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, may actually be the best movie based on a video game ever made, though we will certainly understand if fans of the Resident Evil franchise wish to file an objection.  But 'best' does not always equate to 'good', not that either is necessary for a movie to be enjoyable.  Prince of Persia is, at the very least, one of the best video game movies out there, and is certainly enjoyable.

It's still not all that good.

But this is far from enlightening.  What's most intriguing about this film is that, in approaching good, we have finally determined to our satisfaction why it is so difficult for movies derived from video games to cross that threshold.  We have heard it said, from time to time, that video game plots lack the substance or the complexity to be developed into good movies.  Yet the game this was based on has a far more developed plot than, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride that gave birth to that franchise.  And those movies - especially the original - are far better than this.

The difference between them is that the filmmakers who crafted Curse of the Black Pearl sat down and answered a single question: "What do you mean by 'based on'?"

It is the question all adaptations must confront, and it is likewise the question that tripped up Prince of Persia.  Is this adapted from the game or merely inspired by?

The video game actually has a surprisingly thoughtful story.  It's not really a complex story, but it's thoughtful nonetheless.  While the game also deserves praise for its design and action sequences, the plot is what ties it together.

However, that plot is ultimately limited to three characters: the prince, the princess, and the vizier.  While such reductionist stories may function well in game environments, it's difficult to craft an entertaining film from such a skeletal structure.

So, when transitioning from game to movie, they abandoned the story entirely, opting instead to base their film on imagery and sequences from the game.  And this is where the film floundered.  While the sets and fights were certainly amusing, there was a sense in which the movie felt shackled to its source.  If you've played the game, than you've seen these environments.  You've explored them, in fact, in more depth than the movie has time to.  You've used the Dagger of Time and have mastered it.  Watching its application in the movie is somewhat akin to seeing a child pick up the controller without learning the controls first. 

Meanwhile, the back story has been entirely changed to better appeal to a wider audience.  The original portrayed the prince as spoiled from birth: the events of the game teach him the meaning of consequences and the significance of responsibility.  Rather than deal with such complexity, the filmmakers have re-imagined him as a street thief who was adopted by a wise and benevolent king.  The arc we're left with is of a man who begins the movie as a brave and noble warrior and ends as a warrior who's learned to trust his already brave and noble heart.

In some ways, this is as much an adaptation of Disney's Aladdin as it is Sands of Time.  Ultimately, though, a live-action Aladdin starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Alfred Molina as the genie would probably have been a better film.

In addition, the princess from the game had more depth than appeared here.  It didn't help that her animosity towards the prince seemed misplaced here, as Gyllenhaal was, as previously mentioned, brave and noble from the start, and was clearly as much a victim of circumstance as she was.  As a result, her continued attempts to ditch or, on one occasion, murder him, come of as foolish, petty, and anti-productive, hardly an appropriate portrayal for the sole female character with a name.

In attempting to skirt the line between allowing themselves the freedom of being inspired by the source material and trying to faithfully adapt the game environments and ideas, the movie leaves fans of the game stranded between what we've already seen and what we miss.  There's not enough new to intrigue us and too little of what we loved about the game for us to fully enjoy as an adaptation.

Compare this with Pirates of the Caribbean, which playfully tipped its hat to its inspiration then moved on to a new story, new settings, and new characters.

This isn't to say there's nothing to enjoy.  Ironically, we actually did enjoy this film, thanks to the solid acting, amazing sets, and exciting action.  We enjoyed it throughout, but, aside from the first big battle and the flashback to the young Dastan, we never loved what we were seeing.

Perhaps, if it should manage a sequel, Prince of Persia will be able to find its own footing.  Certainly the elements are in place: Jake Gyllenhaal is a fantastic choice for the role.  Now that its dues to the game have been paid, we'd love to see an original swashbuckling adventure story in this world.

Such prospects seem unlikely, however, as the theater we went to was mostly empty.  There's little indication this will make enough to warrant another picture.

This movie clearly wants to be Pirates of the Caribbean, so it seems only appropriate to grade on that curve.  If Curse of the Black Pearl is a five star film, than Sands of Time is good for two and a half.

Ironically, if you've never played the game this is based on, you're likely to enjoy the setting and fights more than we did.  This isn't bad for an adventure movie - it manages to retain a quick pace and light tone throughout.  But, frankly, with movies like Iron Man 2 in abundance, we have higher expectations.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Futures Market 2010, Part 2

Every year The Middle Room attempts to look towards tomorrow, to predict, with what we hope is near-perfect accuracy, the quality of films yet to come.  And, with few exceptions, we typically embarrass ourselves.

Last time, we considered the opening films of summer, but now we must gaze further into the haze of the future and June.

Half of July will be thrown in for good measure.

The A-Team (June 11)
Estimated Tomatometer: 40%

The quality of this film will likely be directly proportionate to the number of times they play the original theme song during the course of the movie.  The trailer offers an uneven impression: we're thrilled to see this level of absurdity, but not impressed with some of the CG effects, particularly connected to the falling tank.  Even so, this movie has certainly caught our interest.

The Karate Kid (June 11)
Estimated Tomatometer: 55%

While we don't have plans to see this, the fact that two remakes from the eighties are opening the same weekend is worth noting.  We don't have anything against the trailer to this movie, actually.  A remake of the Karate Kid certainly seems unnecessary, but it certainly appears to have been made in the spirit of the original, even if the martial art in question has changed.

Jonah Hex (June 25)
Estimated Tomatometer: 45%

Divided into its components - into the cellular units the film is constructed of - it is difficult to explain why we are not more excited about this movie.  However, the previews offer us little hope that Jonah Hex will deliver an experience equal to its source material.  The cause for this discrepancy is fairly straightforward: the filmmakers seem to have approached the character and concept as being comical, when there are few characters who should be treated as seriously as Jonah Hex.

That said, the most venomous insult thrown at Jonah Hex appears to be that it may be no better than Wild Wild West, and despite its many flaws, we kind of enjoyed that film.  Regardless of our impression, we doubt critics will be forgiving.

Toy Story 3 (June 25)
Estimated Tomatometer: 99.8%

Neither installment from the Toy Story franchise rates highly on our list of favorites from Pixar.  That said, the films are still produced by a company whose worst films exceed the best produced by their rivals (yes, even Cars).  On top of that, Toy Story 2 was an improvement on the first.  These characters are beloved by the filmmakers, and there is every indication that the third may improve on its predecessors.

While we often disagree with critics on many issues, we generally find ourselves in agreement when it comes to Pixar.  Our estimate may be slightly optimistic, but we doubt we'll be off by more than a percentage point or two.

Twilight Saga: Eclipse (June 30)
Estimated Tomatometer: 25%

Before we go on, allow us to assure our readers that we will not see Eclipse.  Even if it were to garner critical approval and strong word of mouth recommendations, we are less than eager to sit in a theater surrounded by that many teenagers.

That said, this is movie about vampires and werewolves (or at least things resembling vampires and werewolves), and and as such is, technically, a film related to geek interests.  For this reason, we include it on our list, despite the fact the trailer managed to lower the bar on vampire/werewolf fighting with what may be the dullest looking battle sequence imaginable.

Van Helsing seems better all the time....

The Last Airbender (July 2)
Estimated Tomatometer: 50%

It is no coincidence that our estimate falls in the dead center of the scale: the simple fact is, we do not know what to make of this film.

Our thoughts on M. Night Shyamalan are in the public record.  While we'd like to believe he's capable of once again crafting a worthwhile production, it's been a long time since such faith was rewarded.

However, the trailers have some promise.  Certainly, it's easy to be underwhelmed by some casting choices, but the effects and stylistic choices cannot help but inspire some optimism.  And yet, we recall being intrigued by the trailer for The Village.

Our estimate is a shot in the dark; an admission of uncertainty which guarantees we won't miss our mark by more than 50%.  We expect our decision to see this will be determined more by word of mouth than by reviews, but we will pay attention.

Predators (July 7)
Estimated Tomatometer: 88%

Are we being optimistic?  Perhaps.  There is, generally speaking, a law of diminishing returns for the quality of sequels to R-rated movie franchises.  But every indication we've seen tells us this will be an exception.  More than that, we have a feeling, an instinctual sensation in our gut, that this will bury the Alien Vs. Predator films and surpass at least Predator 2 (a solid picture) in quality.

Time will tell.

Despicable Me (July 9)
Estimated Tomatometer: 45%

With all due respect to the honorable Steve Carell, the trailers for this have been passable at best.  While we haven't seen anything offensively bad in connection to this, nothing has struck us as unusually good, either.

If our estimate proves low by forty points or more, we may see this.  Barring that, we've little interest in another CG movie without the talent of Pixar behind it.

When next we gather to discuss this subject, we shall leave no reel unturned.  Yes, the third installment shall be the last, and our gaze shall be cast all the way to the end of summer.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Movie Review: Robin Hood

Many claims have been made about Ridley Scott's Robin Hood.  While some are accurate, as many or more are misleading in nature and can lead to confusion about the nature of the film.  In the interest of the public well being, we in The Middle Room have decided to dedicate some of our review to rooting out such misconceptions and setting them right.

This is, in essence, the educational portion of our review, and we will be quite upset if we don't begin receiving some form of federal funding as a result.

It has been said that, in this movie, Ridley Scott is attempting to relaunch Robin Hood in the same vein that Batman Begins or Casino Royale relaunched Batman and Bond.  While there's a kernel of truth to this claim, it fails to fully convey the experience of the film.  The movie may have been shot as if it were a dark and gritty picture, but the writing - and, in many cases, the acting - are another animal entirely.

Imagine, if you will, that the script to the Adam West Batman movie had been picked up by Christopher Nolan, then filmed in the style of The Dark Knight.  Christian Bale is still Batman, and he reads every bat-line in the same raspy voice he's known for.  The lines about bat-shark repellent and not being able to get rid of a bomb are still there, but they're spoken without humor.  Also, the role of the Riddler is played by Frank Gorshin.

Switch the Bale to Crow, Gotham to Nottingham, and Riddler to King John, and you've pretty much described this movie in a nutshell.  The only exception is the plot: the story in the Adam West Batman movie made more sense.  Far more sense, in fact.  More on this in a moment.

It has also been said that this was intended as a more historically accurate version of Robin Hood.  This is blatantly false on more counts than we can easily count.  There may be accurate props, the costumes may be somewhat more believable, and the setting may be more truthful, but overall this no more historically believable than Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  Or, for that matter, Men in Tights.

If we're mistaken, than our high school world history teachers have some explaining to do.

This is, frankly, not a good movie.  That said, it's not an altogether unenjoyable movie, provided you are willing to dispense with notions like continuity and logic.  Characters have a tendency of instantly traveling great distances between scenes.  The plot folds over on itself; there is little causal connection between one event and the next, nor is there much in the way of consequences.  Meanwhile, characters will occasionally know things in one scene they did not the moment before with no explanation.

This is a movie permeated by images and ideas that feel eerily familiar.  Moments echo from other movies you've seen.  Sure, there's the obvious tipping of the hat to other Robin Hood films and the expected borrowing from Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, but then Darth Maul shows up and betrays England.  And let's not forget the tribe of Lost Boys living in Sherwood.  Or the scene from Saving Private Ryan.  And none of this comes close to the bizarre echo of Queen Elizabeth: The Golden Age that occurs in the final battle sequence.

Also, we finally learn where the Joker got his scars.

It's easy to have fun watching this, though much of that fun comes at the movie's expense.  It's entertaining, for example, to see Alan Doyle from Great Big Sea playing Allan A'Dayle, but he's still singing modern interpretations of folk music.  And Oliver Isaac's Prince John is more or less identical to that of the talking lion in Disney's interpretation.  Seriously.  Watch the first minute or two of this.... then watch this.  IT'S THE SAME SCENE.

Our reaction upon walking out of the theater was to ask, "What the hell was that?"  We've yet to work out an answer.  Was this supposed to be campy?  If so, then why film it like it's a historic epic?  It's almost as if Ridley Scott either couldn't decide or didn't care what he was making.  Is this an update of the Robin Hood of the 1930's?  If so, why tell a prequel?

Fortunately, for all its faults, there was plenty of beautiful imagery and solid action to keep us diverted.  On the Chronicles of Riddick scale, we'll award this two and a half stars out of five.  This was amusing, but, as a ridiculous, medieval prequel adventure with the pretense of serious realism, it falls short of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.  Still, if you enjoy sword fights and the English countryside - as we do - it may be worth a viewing.

Even so, it's hard to endorse this when you could just go see Iron Man 2 again.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Movie Review: Iron Man 2

The response from critics towards Iron Man 2 has proven less enthusiastic than we predicted.  Fortunately, this discrepancy reveals far more about the critics than the movie itself.  A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes, where Iron Man 2 has earned a respectable, albeit underrated, 74%, offers some context for those who did not enjoy the movie.  The primary complaint seems to revolve around plot, which many critics - including several who enjoyed the film overall - maintained was light.

It may surprise you to hear that we agree with this assessment.  Where we disagree is in whether this is actually a flaw.

Iron Man 2 is not, strictly speaking, much of a movie in its own right.  It doesn't portray the epic struggle between a hero and his nemesis.  Sure, there's a supervillain, but he's little more than a minor inconvenience.  Tony Stark has always been his own worst enemy, and the movie allows him to serve as both protagonist and adversary.

The events portrayed feel less like a plot than a series of disconnected incidents.  The film doesn't even focus its point of view on Stark, but rather widens to explore those around him.

In essence, they've made a film about the Marvel Universe's relationship with Tony Stark.  We've heard Iron Man 2 described as a bridge to future Marvel films, and again, there's some truth to this.  Only the term carries associations with duller stories, and we find it hard to imagine seeing this as anything less than fascinating.

No, "bridge" is not the word we use.  To us, Iron Man 2 felt like a feature length trailer for what's coming.  Rather than trying to tell a single story, the filmmakers used Iron Man 2 as an opportunity to explore their universe, pulling in more and more characters and artifacts from their source material.  They've offered a vignette of sequences and character arcs exploring the rich universe these films portray.

In comic terms, they've given us the issues between major story lines, the books offering context and development.  From a production standpoint, nothing occurs in Iron Man 2 that couldn't have been skipped: they could simply have made the movie after this one and made veiled references to technological improvements, character growth, and relationships, and we'd have taken it at face value.  That would have been the easy solution.

But they've done something less expected and more courageous.  They've devoted a film to the depth of the Marvel Universe.  And they certainly retained everything that made the first movie successful: Tony Stark's eccentric personality, the sense of adventurous fun, the comedy, and the awesome action scenes.

The issue is that movie reviewers are trying to compare Iron Man 2 with Superman 2.  But this isn't the issue where Zod conquers Earth: instead, it's akin to stories about Clark trying to balance his job and friendships while dealing with threats from Toyman and Metallo.  Iron Man introduced the shared Marvel Universe to theatrical audiences.  Its sequel allows that Universe to take a starring role.  Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. deserves an Oscar for his supporting role.

When we reviewed the first movie, we held it against the best modern superhero movies.  Against the same competition, we give Iron Man 2 the same grade: 4 stars out of five.  This is a worthy successor in this series, and, more importantly, a fantastic harbinger of what's coming.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

More than a day

No day in the Geekorian calendar is as holy as the first Saturday in May.  It is known by many names: Geek Christmas, Geek Independence Day, and, of course, colloquially as Free Comic Book Day.  It is a day when anyone of any age can walk into nearly any comic book store in the country and receive one or more free comic books.

To the cynic, Free Comic Book Day is about nothing more than this: to them, it is a day about comics.  But this is a flawed description.  Certainly, comic books represent an important aspect to the traditional celebration of Free Comic Book Day, but there is certainly more to the day than mere comic books.

Indeed, we in The Middle Room maintain that were The Leader to steal every issue set to be delivered, Free Comic Book Day would come all the same.  "How?" you may ask.  Because there is a spirit to the day which cannot be stolen or dismissed.

It is the spirit of Getting.  Yes, when you strip away the mass-produced covers and the dozens upon dozens of pages of ads, you find this kernel at the core of every book.  If you look behind the grin of every young child clutching their first free bag of comics, you can see that glint in their eye: this didn't cost them a penny.

The store owners, priestly stewards of the holiday, perceive Free Comic Book Day at a different level: those books cost them money.  But still, the spirit endures, because they are getting new customers.  As are the publishers, who sell the comics at a loss in the hopes of getting new readers who will come back to hand over real money next time for the follow up issue chronicling the coming War of the Supermen.

In some ways, we consider Free Comic Book Day the most quintessentially American of all holidays.  Sure, Christmas and Valentines Day have been blatantly distorted into a crass exploitation of commercialism, but the effects of these last for only a single day.  Those behind Free Comic Book Day hope to manipulate readers - particularly new readers, children - for an entire year.

Or, if you're like us and are willing to stop by a few stores in New York City, you could well find yourself with a year's worth of free reading material free of charge.  In one day, two agents sent from The Middle Room were able to procure 80 comics (39 unique books, 41 duplicates; one of which was signed by Jim Shooter and Dennis Calero), two buttons, one poster, and a War Machine Heroclix figure which will look great beside the Iron Man Heroclix figure we got a few years back.

So, in conclusion, we say to all of you in The Middle Room and beyond, happy Free Comic Book Day, and may Thor bless America.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Futures Market 2010, Part 1

We've few traditions in The Middle Room, but trying to foretell the future has become one.  Every year, we consider the upcoming releases and try to predict, based on trailers and word of mouth, which will be worthy of our money.  As always, our gauge shall be Rotten Tomatoes, the most scientific appraisal available for critical reaction.

In the interest of fair play, we promise to make use of no time travel devices or divination in our attempts.

Here then, are the films for May:

Iron Man 2
(May 7)
Estimated Tomatometer: 90%
The first installment achieved a 93%.  While we expect the sequel to be, if anything, slightly better than the original, we suspect a small number of critics who embraced Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance the first time to betray the series, complaining that they've seen it before.  Regardless what the critics think, we expect we'll see this movie.

However, based on the trailers, we anticipate those of us who are connoisseurs of geek entertainment will be very pleased with this picture.  It is hard to watch previews without thinking of Spider-Man 2, which managed to exceed the first.

Robin Hood (May 14)
Estimated Tomatometer: 75%
In his prime, Ridley Scott directed some of our favorite films.  However, most of those came out in the seventies and eighties.  In truth, we've been less than thrilled with his post-Blade Runner work.  Our hope for Robin Hood is not bolstered by the casting of Russell Crowe.  It's not that we consider Crowe a bad actor, rather that we find him a good actor who usually stars in bad films.  We believe Gladiator, the film Robin Hood most resembles, to be one of the most overrated movies we've ever seen.

The situation is not helped by the fact this is both an origin story and an attempt at realism.  Robin Hood is a figure of myth, not history.  Tell the myth within it's historical context, by all means, but please, tell the myth.  We've had enough "realistic" interpretations of Robin Hood and King Arthur.

Nonetheless, we will likely give this a chance, if for no other reason than Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea was cast as Alan A'Dayle.  Even so, we have more faith critics will respond favorably to this than we will.  Only if critical response is overwhelmingly negative would we rethink our plans.

MacGruber (May 21)
Estimated Tomatometer: 50%
Truth be told, we find extremely unlikely that we'll see this movie.  We've included it on our list because it is, on some level, an 80's action pastiche.  In a summer that will see the release of the A-Team and The Expendables, a clear theme is developing.  Unless we hear very positive recommendations, we'll likely save our money rather than go see a Saturday Night Live spin-off.

Shrek Forever After (May 21)
Estimated Tomatometer: 65%
The original Shrek was a mediocre film, a flawed comedy with enough good moments to make it worth a viewing.  We consider its status as a classic undeserved.  Its sequel was a bit better.  Still far from brilliant, it was at least a solid comedy/adventure.  We never saw the third, but by all indications, there's little reason to do so.

It's difficult to speculate whether the fourth will be at all worthwhile.  Our guess is that it won't be, but then our faith in Dreamworks' animation is less than high.  If, say, ninety percent of critics praise this, we'll likely check it out.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (May 28)
Estimated Tomatometer: 60%
While we have little time for most video games, the one this movie is based on happens to be an exception.  We have, in fact, played through Prince of Persia, and found it an enjoyable experience.  Judging by the trailers, the filmmakers seem to have gone with a campy interpretation, a decision we're not too thrilled by.  This is clearly an attempt to recreate the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, and we will sing their praises if they succeed.  If they falter, however, they will have squandered a great opportunity.  Sands of Time is one the rare video games whose premise includes real potential to be taken seriously.

Micmacs (May 28)
Estimated Tomatometer: NA (Current: 79%)
We've yet to decide whether to see Jean-Pierre Jeunet's new film.  While Amelie is one of our favorite foreign films, it cannot be overlooked that Jeunet did, in fact, direct Alien: Resurrection.  While it's yet to be released in the United States, Micmacs came out in France last year, so a number of critics have chimed in.  Whether its score rises or lowers is of little interest to us: in truth, whether we see this in the theater or on DVD has more to do with where it ends up playing than anything else.

Next time, we shall delve further into the summer, gazing into the eye of that enigmatic month known as "June." We may also consider some of July, as time permits.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass is, first and foremost, an uncompromising movie.  It was made without studio interference, and the artistic vision of the director comes through the final product, as does the voice of Mark Millar, who originally wrote the comics it's based on.

The thing is, sometimes compromise is a good thing, particularly when subtlety is called for.  As for artistic vision, this is the director of the Stardust we're talking about.  And, while Mark Millar has written some great stories (Red Son is nothing short of fantastic), the majority of his work we've seen has been mediocre at best.  We never did get around to reading Kick-Ass, and we don't feel particularly inspired to do so at the moment.

This isn't to say Kick-Ass is entirely bad.  In fact, as a whole, it averages out to good.  But good won't cut it this time.

The issue isn't so much with the movie as with our expectations.  We've all seen the previews, which were, on a whole, amazing.  Those scenes were amazing in the movie, well: seeing them before hand didn't dull their effect.  What it did was give us an opportunity to imagine what the movie could be.  And that comes down to a single word:

Fun.  This movie could have been fun.  If the pacing had kept up or if the tone had been more consistent, it could have worked at that level at least.  Had they cleaned up the dialogue as well, then it might have reached for something higher.

With that said, this is still worth seeing, though not necessarily in the theater.  Hit Girl is awesome; an eleven year-old girl action hero embodies a facet of superheroics we hadn't seen before.  There's not a lot that wasn't covered in the previews and scenes released online, but there's enough to make this worthwhile.

Ultimately, as a dark spin on superheroes, this just isn't as grand, intriguing, or simply as much fun as Watchmen.  Granted, Watchmen had its problems, but it was certainly an experience to behold.  Kick-Ass had its moments, but it was nothing special.

Kick-Ass might have benefited from studio interference.  If the director had been told "no" from time to time, it could have meant a better film.  And, frankly, if a bit of the violence had been toned down, we doubt the finished product would have been poorer for the loss.

On a scale between one and five stars, where five represents The Incredibles, Kick-Ass gets two and a half.  This is a movie you need to see... but that's what Netflix is for.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

DVD Review: Planet Hulk

When DC releases an animated direct-to-DVD feature, we tend to see it immediately, sometimes taking the extra step of traveling forward in time to see it before its release.  When Marvel releases a DVD, we generally get around to it in a few months, depending on how we're feeling.

However, we may need to review this policy.  While Planet Hulk was far from spectacular, it marks the fourth worthwhile production in a row.  While it falls far short of Hulk Vs., it's still a good movie, well worth your time.

We should state now, before continuing, that we have never read the comics this was based on.  As such, we are not aware which elements were imported from the source material and which were created for the film.  Therefore, we're unsure who to blame for the plot holes and cliches, just as we don't know who to applaud for the setting and characters.

Fortunately, much of the story predates the comics.  Obviously, this owes a great deal to Spartacus, as well as John Carter of Mars.  This is an old story with old ideas, but that's kind of a selling point here.  This is a retelling - an adaptation of a sort - that feels more in tone with the old Marvel "What If?" series than anything else.  That this remains in Marvel continuity can't change that fact.

If the notion of seeing the Hulk play the role of Spartacus on Barsoom sounds tedious, then this isn't for you.  If anything, the movie suffers whenever it deviates from this premise.  Having never read the comics, we don't know how closely the last act follows the original, but the story as presented made short work of the last twenty minutes.  The conclusion hinged on a plot twist we can't imagine anyone not seeing far in advance.  Calling it a "twist" at all is something of stretch.  Let us say instead that one of the characters is finally shown something painfully obvious.

This movie exists so the Hulk can crush, smash, and break a number of alien creatures.  This is, of course, amusing in itself, and the movie delivers the action you'd expect.  It doesn't offer anything beyond this, but we didn't really expect it to.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Every aspect of How to Train Your Dragon is good, but there's very little here that's excellent.  In a world without Pixar - and make no mistake, in the infinite sea of alternate dimensions, such a world exists (there are, oddly enough, no shrimp there) - How to Train Your Dragon would be heralded as one of the greatest CG films ever made, alongside Kung Fu Panda and Monster House.  But, unfortunately for Dreamworks, Earth-Prime does have a Pixar, so we've seen better.

Before going on, we have a confession to make: we did not see this in its intended three dimensions.  This was a mistake: the flying sequences were the high point of the film, and we expect they're even more stunning while filtered through polarized lenses.  Perhaps, in time, we will see this a second time.  If so, we will certainly try the 3D experience.

Although we did not enjoy How to Train Your Dragon as much as Kung Fu Panda, this movie was not as flawed.  How to Train Your Dragon actually serves as an important milestone.  This is the first non-Pixar CG animated motion picture with no serious flaws.  This does not pander to the youngest members of the audience, nor does it interrupt its story for comic relief or pop music.  There are no characters who drag down the film or serve to distract the audience.

But, overall, the high points of How to Train Your Dragon were not as spectacular as those in Kung Fu Panda.  Its world, while certainly interesting, was not as engrossing or intriguing.  And, most importantly, there's less that's stayed with us.

The one accusation we can bring against How to Train Your Dragon is that it felt timid.  For all the implied violence, we never see a dragon or viking kill the other.  There is talk of death, but no blood makes it to the screen.  The movie poses some difficult questions about war and honor, about family and trust, obedience and rebellion, but its answers are simplistic and cheap.

Even the movie's sole sacrifice feels hollow and painless.  We aren't demanding a tragic conclusion, but we needed something to offer resonance, to make us feel something beyond the awe of flight.

But at least it gave us that.  The flight sequences are on par with any you've seen, approaching at times even the brilliance of Miyazaki.  The characters were likewise interesting.  The three leads (the boy, the girl, and the dragon) were always entertaining without feeling cliche.  More surprising, the vikings came across as three-dimensional and deeper than we'd expect.  Sure, they used violence as a crutch for their problems, but their motivations and goals felt - dare we say - layered and complex.

We mentioned earlier that How to Train Your Dragon had passed a milestone.  We applaud Dreamworks for finally beating its demons and managing to put together a movie without deep routed problems or structural flaws.  Even so, this was unable to pass a more significant milestone.  We are still waiting for a CG movie that's better than Pixar's worst film.  We're waiting for Dreamworks - or anyone else - to make a CG movie that was better than Cars.

Of course, our scale needs to be set on a steeper curve.  If The Incredibles is defined as a five star picture, this would earn a solid three.  While it's no Pixar movie, How to Train Your Dragon is solidly enjoyable and worth both your time and money.  Just be sure to learn from our mistake and see this in 3D.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

We were struck, watching Tim Burton's take on Wonderland, by just how dark it was.  We'd assumed, as is only natural, that Disney's previews had played up this aspect and that the movie would be less disturbing than it appeared.

In fact, the opposite was true: the previews made the movie seem lighter than it wound up being.  Some of the film is surprisingly horrific.

Obviously, we were pleased by this discovery.  Unfortunately, being dark and being good are two different things.  And Alice in Wonderland is not, strictly speaking, a good movie.

But it's not a bad movie either.  It is, ultimately, a Tim Burton movie, with all that entails.  The simple fact of the matter is that Burton isn't actually much of a director.  He's a phenomenal artist, a decent producer, and one of the most spectacular designers out there.  It's just directing he seems to have problems with.  Well, that and writing, though it looks as though he wasn't involved with the screenplay this time around.

As a filmmaker, Tim Burton transformed the medium, fusing art house, genre, and big budget production into a single style.  Without the work he did in the eighties, it's unlikely that the current superhero renaissance would have occurred.  Twenty years ago, he was inspiring a generation of genre directors to strive for something better.

But the movies that inspired them, movies we love, like Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, are deeply flawed.  The best movie he ever made - The Nightmare Before Christmas - wasn't actually made by him.

The point of this aside isn't to denigrate Burton, but rather to offer some perspective.  His movies have never been good, per se.  That simply isn't his style.  Rather, Tim Burton makes movies no one else can, and the world is richer for them.

Ultimately, therein lies the conundrum of Alice in Wonderland.  This is a movie someone else should have made, but no one else could have.  We refer not to artistic vision - there are many who could have conceived of such a movie - but rather to a more concrete issue.  No one else could have possibly gotten the funding to make this movie happen.

If you hadn't yet picked up on that concept, this is not a retelling of Alice, but rather a sequel.  Of course, this isn't exactly a novel idea.  American McGee's Alice, a video game from several years back, told a similar story.  The game was nothing exceptional, though the trailer was somewhat more impressive.

We bring this up, in part, because there had been talk at one point of developing that into a film of its own.  The movie obviously fell through, which wasn't a huge surprise.  If it had been produced, it would likely either have evolved into either a horror movie with only a passing resemblance to Lewis Carol's original or it would have been eroded by studio notes until it turned into something much more horrible: a dull and uninspired children's film.  While it's not entirely a waste of film, the world certainly doesn't need another Hook.

What Burton managed was to create an Alice movie that walked a line between a Disnified fairy tale and a twisted nightmare.  The movie lacks any real emotional resonance, there are numerous plot holes and unresolved questions, and contains more missteps than we can easily count... but, on some level, such complaints are a 'glass half-empty' approach.  You can choose to focus on the flaws or the merits.  You can choose whether you want to like or dislike this movie.

There is a real sense, that if this had been made in 1987 on a hair string budget, it would have been heralded by fans as the greatest movie ever made.  Now, many of those people will dismiss as computer-generated crap, despite the fact the movie is no worse for its use of technology.

Actually, it uses that technology well.  The real and CG characters are integrated masterfully.  The 3D is somewhat uneven - it's clearly Burton's first attempt - but it's still worth seeing in the third dimension.

A review of Alice in Wonderland wouldn't be complete without mentioning the parallels between this and Narnia.  In particular, we were often reminded of the Prince Caspian adaptation from a few years back.  At the time, we mentioned enjoying the juxtaposition between the adorable animals and the brutality they displayed on the battlefield.  Well, Prince Caspian has been outdone.

While many of the characters were mediocre, we were highly impressed with the dormouse.  Burton wisely scaled her to actual size, but still provided her with some of the best action scenes in the movie.  She wasn't on camera often, but we felt she managed to steal the show regardless.  Likewise, the Cheshire Cat and Bandersnatch were also greatly appreciated.

The movie was a bizarre experience, but not an unpleasant one.  Sure, the frame story was pointless, and Alice's character arc was forced.  Sure, several scenes felt like they were shot on location in the ruins of Osgiliath or in Rivendell.  But who cares?  Burton gave us a post-apocalyptic version of Disney's Wonderland, and we had fun.

When fairytale fuses with horror, we think of Coraline.  With that film wearing a crown of five stars, we'll offer Alice in Wonderland a relative three.

This isn't a great movie, but it has enough great things in it to be worth your time and money.  Just be sure to spring for a 3D showing.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Catching Up - The Battle for Terra

In our retrospective for the summer of 2009, we mused it was unlikely we would ever get around to watching The Battle for Terra.  It seems we may have been mistaken, as chance has offered us the opportunity to gaze upon the film at no cost.  We have uncovered a place where one might acquire DVDs for a limited amount of time then return them without penalty.
While such an institution may seem the stuff of dream or fancy, we assure you it is nevertheless real.  It is a strange place, antiquated and anachronistic, dealing in bound paper copies rather than Kindles or iPads.
They call it a "library."  Being students of history, we are not unfamiliar with the term, but we'd thought the last such temples dedicated to reason and knowledge were destroyed in the Crusades.  Apparently though, a few have survived, and they now deal in DVDs as well as books and scrolls.
At any rate, we viewed The Battle for Terra in its entirety.  While there were a few interesting aspects to the film, overall it was far from spectacular.  At every turn, the film avoided engaging the intriguing questions it should have been asking.  It seemed as though it might approach questions such as, "What are the limits to a species right to exist?" and "Is extinction preferable to surviving in a cage?"  It could have faced such ideas - should have done so - but ultimately was simply too timid, too weak.
The movie's saving grace, if it can be called that, is in the visuals.  The space ships, while not particularly original, are still cool, and the wildlife on the alien world is fairly interesting.
The alien creatures, however, are not.  We will be gracious and say they look like a cross between tadpoles and smurfs.  In addition, they are so sickeningly gentle and corny, it's impossible to look at their drum circles without wanting to see them get vaporized.
We must confess some affection, however, for the variation on Area 51 on the alien world.  It was a simple twist, but far more clever than anything else the movie had to offer.
The movie touches on some dark themes, but only lightly.  There is too much horror, we suspect, for a very young audience, but far too little for adults.
There was just enough in the film to keep us mildly amused for its short run time.  Though if it had been more than an hour and a half rather than less, we're not sure we could have stomached it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Back in Town

The Middle Room is pleased to announce that we have conclusive evidence that Bruce Wayne is alive.

For months now, rumors have circulated claiming an upcoming miniseries will chronicle Batman's return to the present.  But rumors alone aren't enough to convince us.  No, for us to truly believe that Wayne survived Darkseid's Omega Sanction at point blank range we require something more tangible.

Then, about a week ago, a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, was sold for a million dollars.  This set a new record as the highest amount paid for a single issue.

Almost immediately, the record was broken.  Detective Comics #27, which introduced Batman to the DC Universe, sold for slightly more than a million, casting doubt on the very assumption of the comics' respective values.

Who had the funds to afford such a purchase?  Who would have wanted to see Batman's first appearance enshrined as the most valuable comic ever created, thus humiliating the Man of Steel.

There is only one possible conclusion.