Saturday, January 30, 2010

In Conclusion

The final episode of Dollhouse has aired, leaving us a moment to reflect.  Mercifully, the last few episodes were among the weakest of the season, dulling the pain of losing yet another of Joss Whedon's shows before its time. 

The conclusion continues the storyline started in Epitaph One, the episode Fox never bothered to air.  Anyone who hadn't seen it online or on the DVD was likely confused by the sudden jump into a post apocalyptic future, but fortunately there was a poorly edited montage to bring them up to speed.

Elements of the finale were decent, though the show's budget - or lack thereof - was painfully apparent at times.  On some level, the last episode felt like a direct-to-video sequel made in the early nineties.  Even the episode's title, "Epitaph Two: Return," invokes such parallels.   There were fine ideas, but the actual writing felt second rate.  And, of course, Eliza Dushku's strong suit has never been dramatic moments, a fact as apparent here as ever.  One crucial scene, intended to be one of the series's most moving, wound up being almost embarrassing to watch.

Overall, Dollhouse was undeniably the weakest of Joss Whedon's productions, though it had enough exceptional episodes to make the series worthwhile.  It took a third of the first season, however, for Dollhouse to reach a point where it crossed the line into good: it's asking a lot of any audience - even those loyal to Whedon - to wait that out.

We were, however, rewarded for our patience, at least for a time.  As the second season progressed, a larger plot developed, fueled by the promise of a post apocalyptic world waiting for the characters; a world of their own creation.  For a time, the show had found its voice and direction.

It was then, of course, that Fox announced it would be canceled.  In an effort to move things forward, Whedon condensed at least three seasons worth of plot twists and ideas into a half dozen episodes.  The experience of watching the second half of Dollhouse's last season was like reading a synopsis: the ideas were expressed with enthusiasm, but there was no substance.

This came to a head in Epitaph Two, which attempted to cram a six hour miniseries into a single hour.  Even if the dialogue hadn't been laughably bad, it would still have been impossible to care about any of the characters at this pace.

It's a pity, because there were characters and concepts we'd have liked to see developed.  If Dollhouse had been allowed to progress at a natural pace, we have no doubt it could have turned into a fantastic show.

We are consoled, at least, by the fact that the end of the series wasn't spectacular, so we aren't losing something dear to our heart.  We went through that when Firefly went off the air; it's nice to lose a mediocre Whedon show for a change.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


While we do not indulge in such activity, there is little denying that cosplay, the compulsive drive to dress up as a fictional character, is profoundly geeky in nature.  Until now, we have overlooked the phenomenon, as we've always considered it relegated to the fringe of the fringe.  But recent events have given us cause to reconsider.  Indeed, it seems this trend may extend far beyond the range of the small subculture we'd believed and instead represent a wide range of the population.

The market has in fact spoken.  In the past, companies such as Sideshow Collectibles and Master Replicas have released products facilitating this activity, but they've generally sold these in editions limited to the thousands.  But a new tie-in to the recent Star Trek film has achieved an impossible level of interest from literally millions of fans eager to dress up and pretend they are crew members of the Enterprise.

What's more astonishing is the company producing this prop.  As impossible as it may seem, a facsimile Star Trek data pad has been produced by Apple Computers, and everyone from major media outlets to insane conspiracy theorists writing from their parents' basement are carrying the story.

The implications for this sudden and unexpected interest in Star Trek merchandise are both frightening and intriguing.  We expect these newly-awakened geeks to descend upon comic shops in droves and buy replica phasers and communicators to accompany their iPads.  Within a week, we conservatively predict, Klingon communicators which once sold for $19.95 will be going for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  And if you were planning on attending a Star Trek convention before the franchise becomes anachronistic in 2258, then you may want to buy your tickets and book a hotel room now.

It does deserve noting that some of the light and sound features may appeal to a small niche audience which isn't even aware they're purchasing a Star Trek prop replica.  But, ultimately, we doubt many of the millions eagerly awaiting this product are interested in what amounts to half a netbook with a touchscreen.

No, in our analysis, the vast majority must be Star Trek cosplayers.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

And then there were only Dragons....

The news story precipitating this article was first brought to our attention by the site upon which the internet itself hinges.  We refer, of course, to Penny Arcade, without which the vast sea of knowledge known as the World Wide Web would no doubt cease to exist.

Nevertheless, we confirmed their report with the New York Times.  Just because.

In essence, prisoners in Wisconsin are being denied the right to play D&D, as there is concern it will encourage them to form gangs and attempt escape.

It is the considered opinion of The Middle Room that there may be a misunderstanding here.  In our eternal campaign to spread enlightenment and knowledge, we thought we would explain the fallacy in this logic.  Bear in mind, we have not come to offer commentary on ethics or other peripheral issues.  Tycho, from Penny Arcade, has thoughts to share along those lines, and we'll leave it to our readers to form their own ideas about cruel and unusual punishment and the fine line between obsession and religion.  Our sole endeavor is, as it has always been, the application of reason to the world around us.

Therefore, we begin with the assertion that prisoners exposed to Dungeons & Dragons might form gangs.  Here we see one of the more common points of confusion: while the game does involve, in some circumstances, gang-like groups of characters wielding deadly weapons, the players themselves remain seated around a table holding dice and pieces of paper.  We do not begrudge the Wisconsin Department of Corrections for failing to note to difference between reality and fantasy: they are certainly not the first unable to make such a distinction.

As to the second point, that prisoners may be encouraged to attempt to live out escape fantasies, we turn to our own experiences in Middle School.  In the eighth grade, we found ourselves, on occasion, remaining in school after hours of our own volition so that we might play Dungeons & Dragons in the school library.  While this may at first seem a trivial fact, we remind our readers that Middle School is in many ways a comparable environment to prison.

Were the concern that the inmates might be unwilling to leave prison when their time had been served, we would be less critical of their reasoning.  As to the notion that playing a game without end will cause the players to seek escape, we are a tad skeptical.  The Department of Corrections, in our opinion, may be underestimating the addictive nature of D&D.

Perhaps they should have at least rolled up characters before rendering a verdict.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an enjoyable experience wrapped in a mediocre film.  Enough ideas work to make it worth seeing, but it's far from a spectacular movie.

There is little question this would be a far superior film if not for the computer effects.  Gilliam is a master when it comes to turning reality into fantasy, but computers make the whole thing feel a touch too easy.  The lack of limitation cheapens the effect and, in the end, we're left with vast fantasy environments that often feel no more inspired than your average children's film.  The best of these sequences never approaches the brilliance and awe embedded in a single frame of Henson's Labyrinth.

The scenes taking place in the carriage and on the stage itself are the most fun.  While the over-produced fantasy scenes come off as cheesy, the absurdity of the traveling troop of actors is brilliantly surreal and fascinating.  The strange and impossible stage, decorated in antiquated costumes and pulled by a team of horses through modern-day London, is a joy to watch.  And the characters, for their faults, are intriguing.  Among other things, this movie offers one of the most enjoyable portrayals of the devil we've seen in a while.

But, for all the lip-service paid to the importance of storytelling, the whole piece never comes together into anything remotely coherent.  What's missing is an answer to the question, "Why?"  Parnassus is driven to see the world's imagination set free, though he himself can't imagine his daughter as free herself.  Why?  It may be intriguing as a premise, but, while the consequences drive the plot, this is never really explored.  Motivation is all but ignored throughout the movie, as are explanations.

Perhaps Gilliam left such things unanswered intentionally, hoping the loose ends would force us to imagine explanations of our own.  An idealistic notion, but in reality it just makes the movie feel underdeveloped.  At the very least, we need to understand the complexities for Mr. Nick's relationship to Parnassus.  The seeds of brilliance were evident, but they never grew into anything.

We mentioned Labyrinth earlier, and we'll return to it now.  If Jim Henson's classic fairytale is a five star production, we feel Gilliam's ode to the imagination worthy of two and three-fourths.  It's a fine enough way to spend an afternoon at the theater, but don't expect this to inspire you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Underrated, Part 5: Galaxy Quest

The argument goes, "If God exists, why is there evil in the world?"  To which the theologian answers, "Because there is a plan, even if it cannot be seen." 

But, from time to time, we are offered the briefest of glimpses of such a plan. 

Consider the film, Galaxy Quest, which failed abysmally at the box-office and remains unseen by a startlingly large number of geeks.  There is little question as to what caused this tragedy: the marketing campaign is rivaled only by that of The Iron Giant for worst in the history of the universe.

But we've little interest in belaboring that point: it is not the film's monetary situation that elicits theology.  Rather, it is its star: Tim Allen.

There are few activities as depressing as looking through a list of his roles.  Besides being cast in the Toy Story franchise, there is little in his career to celebrate.  He is best known, of course, for his work on Home Improvement, a show we maintain the universe would have been better off without.  Every time we need to sit through a trailer for a movie like Wild Hogs or Christmas with the Kranks, we cringe and find ourselves asking, "Why?"  Why would any God - let alone a good one - force such a string of movies on His children?

But, while rewatching Galaxy Quest the other day, we stumbled on an answer.  Tim Allen's career was necessary to create Tim Allen.  We refer not to his skill as an actor: that is entirely peripheral.  Instead, we refer to his persona and image.

All of his movies and the seasons of Home Improvement were necessary to construct the man who could do the impossible: who could BECOME William Shatner.  Now, it is important to differentiate Allen's role in Galaxy Quest from Chris Pine's in Star Trek.  Pine was not Shatner, nor was he supposed to be: he was merely tasked with becoming Captain Kirk.

But Tim Allen had to be Shatner himself.  It is our contention that his career facilitated this, allowing him to fill the shoes of the legend.

Galaxy Quest did not succeed merely because of Tim Allen's career, but we believe it was necessary to make the character truly resonate.  He had to be a perfect stand in for Shatner.  It wasn't enough to play a washed-up actor: he had to BE a washed up actor.

It's as though his whole life was leading up to this one role.  And, we ask you, what mortal power could ever plan such a thing?

When we first saw Galaxy Quest, we wondered if perhaps they could have made a similar movie using the actual cast of Star Trek.  But, by design, such a thing would have had to be true self-parody.  Like Shaun of the Dead, Enchanted, Elf, and Sky High, Galaxy Quest works because it is not, strictly speaking, a parody.  All of these are as funny as any parody, but at heart they exist to celebrate rather than mock.

This isn't a movie that seeks to mock and belittle Shatner or his crew.  Instead, it tells us why they are truly awesome.  And, if you needed further proof of divine intervention, it demonstrates that, given the right role, Tim Allen is kind of awesome, as well.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Golden Age

Yesterday, it seems, the Golden Globes were distributed.  We'd heard that this was going to occur, but, in the end, we didn't care enough to watch. 

It now seems that may have been a mistake. 

We woke up this morning to some unexpected news.  First, the award for best actor in a comedy was given to Robert Downey, Jr. for Sherlock Holmes.  Secondly, the awards for best director and best film in drama were both handed to James Cameron for making Avatar.

A moment must be spared to reflect on the category designations here.  What makes Sherlock Holmes a comedy and Avatar a drama?  Intentionally or not, Avatar was by far the funnier film.  Both movies tried to incorporate dramatic scenes: Sherlock Holmes was by far more successful in this endeavor.

This isn't to say that we liked Avatar less.  We greatly enjoyed the experiences offered by both pictures, and are more than a little amused by their victories.  But, while there seems little controversy in belatedly celebrating Downey's string of superb roles, Avatar's award seems somewhat more controversial.

We don't believe it can be seriously entertained that Avatar is the best movie of the year in terms of writing, plot, dialogue, or acting.  Likewise, Cameron's directorial skill wasn't displayed through character interaction or storytelling.

Nevertheless, Avatar has raised the bar on many technological levels.  The special effects were incredible; their integration nearly flawless.  We often hear critics complain that many blockbusters are nothing but mindless imagery, a critique we find hollow.  The level of genius required to design and synthesize Pandora is no less impressive, in our humble opinion, than that required to write and direct The Godfather.  After all, no one complains that brilliant, small art house films with a brilliant idea and script lack a 200 million dollar budget.

Avatar's award is, among other things, a victory of style over substance, of design over character, and technology over human.  In some ways, it represents the revenge of industry over the organic principles the film claimed to celebrate.

Would Avatar have been better with better writing?  Perhaps, though it would have had to be much better to make up for the unintentional comedy that helped make the movie so entertaining.  Sure, there are movies that combine amazing effects with brilliant writing and acting - Lord of the Rings being the obvious example - but we can celebrate a movie that focuses on certain aspects, so long as it does these exceptionally.  We do this all the time when we honor low-budget films that forgo effects to focus on human elements.

Why then shouldn't a movie win for nothing more than visual effects?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Movie Review: Daybreakers

Fundamentally, we have two problems with the movie, Daybreakers.  The first is its title and second pertains only to the final ninety seconds of the film.  Strangely, we consider both issues major ones, though neither prevent this from being the best American made vampire movie we've seen in more than a decade.

Since Blade, in fact, a significant observation as there is more similar than meets the eye.  It could well be argued that Daybreakers is an alternate sequel to Blade.  Had things ended differently and Deacon Frost won, the world he'd usher in would have looked a great deal like that in Daybreakers.  From the design to the blood plants, there are echoes of Blade throughout.  Then again, there are echoes of many movies in Daybreakers.

It's as much Blade Runner as it is Blade, for instance, and its star isn't the only thing to make us think of Gattaca.  We could go on, but such games are seldom fruitful.  Instead, we shall turn to the question of genre, a perplexing one in this case.

Daybreakers is more science fiction than it is horror, and is perhaps more noir than either.  Fortunately, it isn't embarrassed of any of its elements.  There is more gore than we'd anticipated, and it is the sort that tends to occupy horror films: more fun than distressing, used for shock and a twisted sort of comic relief.

The creatures in this movie are vampires in a very literal sense of the word: they burst in flame in sunlight, mutate into bat-like creature in the absence of blood, and cast no reflection.  Aside from some brief shots of newspaper headlines implying a natural origin of the disease, this is more curse than disorder.  We didn't notice any acknowledgment of crosses or garlic, but most other elements were retained: a wooden stake has the effect Hollywood has given it, which explains, quite logically, why the architecture tends to favor metal.

The movie takes the mythology of vampirism seriously.  When it adds a new element, it does so with care.  There is a major addition to the "rules" of vampirism made here, and it feels like a natural progression of those that have existed since vampire movies made stakes and sunlight lethal.

Daybreakers is, first and foremost, very clever.  A great deal of attention is paid to answering the question, "What would a world of vampires be like?"  The movie is good throughout, but it is at its best when establishing setting and tone.  The opening of the movie is perfect, though it seems to have nothing to do with the story.  Perhaps it's leftover from an earlier draft.  No matter, we wouldn't lose it for the world.

Our issues with the movie's title should be obvious: we find ourselves wondering just how many names they tried that were already taken before settling on something so cheesy.  Our other complaint is with the final ninety seconds, and we hesitate to say too much.  Fear not, good reader, we've no intent to spoil the ending.

We offer this observation, instead.  The movie's plot was well-crafted until then, with only the occasional misstep or over develop B plot.  But the last few minutes deviated, not massively or absurdly - they didn't undo or counter the conclusion they'd worked on - but they did seem to ignore it.

We can say no more on this subject.

Of the movies we've compared this to, Blade Runner is the most classic and, in many ways, the most apropos.  So we will call Blade Runner a five star picture and Day Breakers four.  It has some problems, but it is a surprisingly intelligent genre film for this time of year.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Few movies are as under-served by their marketing campaigns as Sherlock Holmes.  Contrary to what the trailers would have you believe, this is actually a good movie; perhaps even a very good movie.

When contemplating a piece like Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes, one is drawn to compare it with the original and with other film adaptations.  It is unavoidable, and so that is where we shall start.

The observation and deductive skills of Holmes remain intact.  Few adaptations have ever conveyed the scope of his mind as faithfully.  The movie's portrayal of Dr. Watson is likewise commendable.  Rather than dismiss him as a bumbling fool, Jude Law's version is more akin to the original: he's present to keep Holmes alive rather than keep him amused.

As soon as the movie had established these constants, it was easy to form the expectation that this was intended as a recreation of the original; a translation similar to the Granada series.

Instead, the movie deviates in unexpected directions.  And, for many fans of the character, their enjoyment or repulsion will come down to a simple question of whether they're able to come to terms with those deviations.

We can respect - even sympathize - with those who are simply unable to accept the changes.  Indeed, we spent much of the movie wondering if these alterations were random.  But then it all fell into place.

This is not merely an adaptation of Holmes, but rather an amalgamation of a half dozen genres inspired by the detective.  This version of Sherlock Holmes is no gentleman, because he is no longer a detective in the tradition of Victorian England: his behavior - and relationship with the police - is rooted in the tradition of American noir.  The setting, while somewhat historically grounded, is enhanced with steampunk sensibilities.  The gadgets and plots of the villains, while stopping short of outright science fiction, are reminiscent of Bond.  And this incarnation of Irene Adler owes less to Arthur Conan Doyle than to Catwoman.

It's easy to become disoriented watching such a film, but there's a method to this production.  All of these elements, from steampunk to Chandler to Bond to Batman, owe a dept of inspiration to the detective of Baker Street.  Guy Richie, it seems, is collecting the interest.

In a way, this is a movie about the history of the detective story, and as such, it's fairly brilliant.  Though, in all honesty, the movie could have benefited from being a bit less subtle in its approach.  There was an attempt to balance these elements against those of the original, and the mixture felt a touch off.

Still, this is a film that deserves to be seen.  It's exciting and intriguing, featuring some exceptional performances and fascinating characters.  On a scale between one and five stars, where five represents... let's go with Donner's Superman (it's an adaptation, after all)... then Sherlock Holmes is deserving of three and a half.