Sunday, February 28, 2010

Movie Review: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

We begin this review, oddly enough, with our conclusion: that the new DC animated direct-to-DVD feature, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, is an excellent animated action movie that succeeds in pretty much every way Public Enemies failed.  In the hierarchy of DC's recent releases, it is firmly planted in the second tier alongside Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight, all great movies that are still unable to reach the heights of New Frontier.

In some ways, though, Crisis on Two Earths doesn't belong in this list.  Indeed, it could - perhaps should - have been produced as it was originally scripted, bridging the gap between Justice League and JLU.  A surprising number of references endured from the series, including the need to construct a new base and the diminished team.

But this was not the League from the animated series.  A choice was made to alter superficial elements, such as the voice actors and character designs, but these could easily be explained away the way we brush off a new writer or artist in the comics.  The decision to use Hal Jordan instead of John Stewart would be somewhat harder.

Overall, this didn't lead to many problems.  After all, we are certainly familiar with these characters, regardless of the incarnations chosen.  The story became a bit awkward around a subplot involving Martian Manhunter, however.  By recreating the team instead of using established characters, they lost access to previous character development.  As such, his character arc in the movie lacked grounding and seemed somewhat superfluous to the plot.

Nevertheless, the movie as a whole worked.  The story was really more about the bad guys than the good ones.  Owlman, in particular, was intriguing as a villain whose quest was entirely driven by existentialism.  If he had an interest in the sadism of his teammates, it was more clinical than cruel.  Evil wasn't an end in itself to him: it was only a tool in his quest to seek meaning through negation.

In contrast, Superwoman was something of a thrill seeker.  The PG-13 rating allowed the filmmakers to play with her sexuality to a degree they probably wouldn't have gotten away with on TV (though, to be fair, they came close several times in JLU with Tala).  We were a little surprised by the degree that Ultraman, generally considered the Crime Syndicate's leader, was ignored here.  This isn't a complaint though: he's far from the team's most interesting character.

It was hard for the heroes to compete.  Most of the Justice League wound up feeling bland in comparison to their counterparts.  Even so, there were things to enjoy.  In particular, we were greatly impressed with the portrayal of Batman in the movie, especially of his fighting style.  This was actually a notable improvement over the vast majority of his fights in the Justice League series.

In the TV show, it wasn't uncommon for Batman to effectively use physical force against foes who could stand up to Superman.  Batman may represent the pinnacle of human ability, but that certainly shouldn't extend to kicking Brainiac's head off (which he's done on occasion).  Overall, Crisis on Two Earths was far more reasonable in its depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He used punches and kicks as distractions, and he was willing to endure a great deal of punishment to lure his foes into complex traps.  This Batman was fighting on a different level.

It was also a pleasure to try and pick out the dozens of minor villains inspired by DC heroes.  And, vice versa, the president of the mirror verse was as inspired as it was unexpected.  While we expect some new viewers will enjoy the movie, it's really intended for longtime fans of the comics.

The DVD itself comes with a few extras of note.  The most significant is easily the "DC Showcase" Specter short.  The use of a few simple filters and a well chosen soundtrack turns what would otherwise be a bland cartoon into a brilliant noir reminiscent of a grindhouse flick.  The story is neither surprising or complex, but the conclusion is shockingly unapologetic.  Definitely make a point of watching this.

There are also a few episodes from the Justice League animated series.  They went with the obvious, selecting "A Better World," the 2-part alternate universe story that was partially inspired by the Crime Syndicate.  In many ways, this is actually a more compelling story than the movie featured, though they are very different in tone.  These "bonus episodes" always feel a little odd.  At this point, it's not hard to find seasons of Justice League and JLU for the $15.  We expect that almost anyone who would buy Crisis on Two Earths already owns the series.  And, if there's anyone who doesn't, we suggest buying those first.  As much as we enjoyed Crisis, those are better.

Like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, this is yet another three and a half star offering before the altar consecrated to The Incredibles.  Considering this was once again released directly to video, that's certainly high praise.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This is how the world ends....

Around these parts we have long anticipated that science would somehow prove our undoing, but the form of said proof has long eluded us.  For a time, we theorized that the construction of robotic monstrosities would bring about our downfall, but so far early prototypes have proven less than intimidating.  Nanotechnology likewise held promise but was similarly unable to measure up.  While nuclear proliferation has begun feeling old fashioned, germ warfare remains in its infancy.

A new decade is upon us, and we need a technological horror to mark the times.  It is in such a spirit that we are pleased to announce the apocalypse may yet be on schedule, thanks to the combined efforts of a primordial ooze and cutting edge science courtesy of Japan.
Yes, at long last serious work has begun at teaching slime to learn, to adapt, and to build.  Sure, in a laboratory environment such intelligent slime seems tame.  But now that it has uncovered the basics of logical thought, it is only a matter of time before it grows weary of taking instruction from humanity.  And, now that we've taught it geography, how long before it discovers the cube?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Halfway There

Normally, we leave the discussion of toys to The Clearance Bin, but we decided it was necessary to chime in on a recent development from Hot Toys.  There are numerous distinctions held by the company; they've won many awards, are widely considered the best in the industry, and have yet to produce a single figure we can afford.

It is with mixed emotions that we must report they are now doing Cyberdyne's dirty work.

On the surface, the reverse appears true: they are crafting a Sarah Connor action figure bearing an almost lifelike resemblance to how she appeared in the second film.  But a closer look reveals this for what it is: a metallic skeleton covered by rubber flesh.

One wonders if their artists appreciate the irony.

Of course, Hot Toys' work is only half done.  If they truly want to create realistic action figures, they need to grow human skin....

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Underrated, Part 6: Elf and Enchanted

On some level, neither Elf nor Enchanted needs inclusion on this list: both performed exceptionally well in the theaters and both were critically acclaimed.  However, after much debate, we decided to include them in our series, as they are underrated in our community.

It is unfortunate, but there remains a number of geeks who have yet to embrace these films.

When we decided to feature them, we chose to do them together, because they are, on some level, the same movie.  Or, more accurately, they both seem to be reflections of the same Platonic ideal movie.

The plot of that film is this: a character who does not belong in the magical realm where they grew up (based on animated works from decades before) voyages to the city of New York, itself portrayed as a magic kingdom which is, in some ways, a reflection of the place they know.  But it is in truth a dark reflection: they are not prepared for the level of mistrust they find around them.  Compounding this, no one believes them when they describe their home.  Such a fantasy world, they are told, does not exist.  They are assumed mad by those around them.

But this character has a core of goodness that cannot be ignored, as well as powers that can't be denied.  The truth of their story is demonstrated in the final act, when those they've touched must have faith to save them.  And then, finally, they must reconcile the two halves of themselves in order to find happiness in New York City.

Truly, it is a heartwarming tale, regardless of whether it's told with a Christmas Elf or a Disney Princess.  In addition to having the same plot and using many of the same locations, the movies are also alike in caring about their source material.

Despite being live action, Elf is unafraid to incorporate elements borrowed directly from the Rankin/Bass specials of yore.  The living snowman, the talking animals, and the candy cane forest all show a willingness to embrace a world of fantasy without embarrassment.

Likewise, the bizarre abilities and aspects of Disney's princesses are utilized to astonishing effect in Enchanted.  From talking to animals to compelling crowds to burst into song, Enchanted incorporates the impossible elements of its fantasy origins.

And that, more than anything else, brings up the common thread: both of these films are, above all else, fantasies.  And, regardless of origin, a good fantasy story brought to screen is something all geeks should see.

In this case, you have the chance to see that story twice.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Catching Up: 30 Days of Night

After being pleasantly surprised by the unfortunately titled Daybreakers, we decided it was time to track down 30 Days of Night, a vampire film we'd likewise heard positive things about.  It is assumed that anyone bothering to read this has seen the movie.  If that assumption is wrong, we warn you that worse things than vampires lurk below: spoilers are immune to garlic and can walk free beneath the sun.

30 Days of Night is a movie about vampires gaming the rules.  While the precise loophole exploited here isn't one we've seen before, there is a long tradition of supernatural creatures avoiding their weaknesses with such tricks.  Our favorite such story can be found in an issue of Swamp Thing penned by Alan Moore where vampires lived in the dark depths of a still lake like leeches.

At any rate, the premise of the movie is intriguing, and the film is beautifully shot.  The effects are well used, and the vampires are both believable and frightening.

Unfortunately, the movie is held back by several factors.  The most notable of these is the editing: the individual scenes are well constructed, but nothing seems to hold them together.  When the vampires are overrunning the town, for example, the main characters are strangely absent, which is fortunate as their attempts at heroics would no doubt have cost them their lives.

The human characters, particularly the leads, weren't particularly interesting, but they weren't bad enough to severely damage the movie.  The vampires were portrayed far better.

There were several plot holes and inconsistencies, and the final action scene made little to no sense at all.  For vampires smart enough to travel to the tip of civilization and use the tilt of the Earth as cover, they lacked the forethought to burn down the town and cover their tracks say, a few days earlier.  With all due respect to the heroic sacrifice of the film's main character, all he really had to do was wait five minutes for the sun to rise, and the vampires would have left on their own.  There was little indication the fire was spreading that quickly.

We were also a bit underwhelmed with the movie's choice of vampires.  Ultimately, there are really two archetypes for vampires used in film: the mythic and the scientific.  These designations are of course misleading: the "mythic" bear little in common with the mythology they're based on, while there is nothing remotely plausible about the "scientific" sort.  The vampires in 30 Days of Night are a rather extreme example of the scientific sort: their condition is, at least in theory, medical, their powers are portrayed as natural, and their weaknesses are less poetic than practical.  Wooden stakes are passed over for head removal, and even this seemed like overkill: a bullet through the head seemed to have the desired effect.

In our opinion, this would have benefited from a more supernatural spin on the creatures.  There are certainly times when the "viral" form of vampirism is suited to the story - Blade comes to mind.  As a rule of thumb, we might offer the notion that the less supernatural the setting, the more supernatural the vampires should seem.

If they'd been repulsed by crosses and killed by wooden stakes, the movie could have taken on a more fairytale sensibility which would have forgiven some of the plot-holes and given some weight to the closing shot.

As it was, this was a good horror film.  Visually, it looked as though it was going to be a good movie, but its strange inconsistencies and utter lack of gravitas kept it from greatness.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Brave New World

To many, the future will no doubt seem odd and peculiar.  Those beyond the fields we know, beyond the realms of geek, are unprepared for the coming world.  We refer not to the rise of machines or the fall of civilization - valid topics both, but we'll save them for another day; instead we wish to discuss to advent of the Third Dimension.
As a concept, of course, the third dimension has existed for millennia, and in practice it has been available slightly longer.  It surrounds us, permeates us, binds the galaxy together.  It is everywhere, or nearly so, and yet it has only recently taken off in film.
Indeed, in the distant future, all time will be divided as BA and AA: Before Avatar and After Avatar, though a massive worldwide computer glitch brought about by the fourth awakening of the Internet in 307AA will throw off the calendar by twenty-eight years, several alternate calendars will be developed, and eventually, in an attempt to secularize dating, the designation BCE and CE will be readopted in 702AA (or 702CE, if you prefer), though the new counting system will remain in use.
Granted, some of Avatar's religious significance can be attributed to its impact on high school students so enraptured by the imagery of Pandora that they experience deep and prolonged depression at the realization they can never visit (a group, we might add, so profoundly nerdy that reading about them makes even us, lifelong and committed geeks, tempted to beat them up for their lunch money).
The majority of the film's impact - both culturally and spiritually - can be traced instead to the absurdly high amount of money it produced.  At some point when we weren't paying attention, it seems to have become the highest grossing movie of all time, crushing even some movie about a sinking boat and a magic amulet.
The secret to Avatar's success isn't complicated: Cameron merely came to an important realization about the nature of theater admissions.  Until now, it was falsely believed that audiences wouldn't pay more than $10 for a ticket, and as such the success of a film was entirely dependant on the number of people who went to see a movie and they number of times they went to see it.  Cameron realized that the ten dollar mark was actually misleading: in fact, audiences are willing to pay $5 per dimension.
Therefore the price of Avatar and other 3D films can be raised to fifteen dollars, a price the audience is more than willing to pay in this case.  As an interesting side note, production studios could drive down the costs of their movies by lowering the ticket price to a mere five dollars and making 1-dimensional movies, similar in some ways to the radio shows of old.

While there's yet to be movement on the 1-dimensional front, now almost every new movie is being planned for 3D.  Why make Transformers 3 in 2D when it can be made in 3D?  Same with the next Underworld installment.  Sure, the budget will need to be inflated, but they'll surely make it up in increased revenue.
Unless, of course, the success of Avatar was driven by the fact the movie is innovative and new.  If that's the case, then the droves of copycat productions being greenlit by the dozens will only further motivate theatergoers to stay home, adding their inflated price of admission to an already long list of grievances, including expensive food, long lines, crowded audiences, cell phones, and the like.
But surely this can't be the case.  Surely Hollywood has the common sense to plan ahead and avoid this outcome.
After all, who wouldn't want to see a 3D live-action Stretch Armstrong movie?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Technically, now it's Overworld

We have, in the past, compared the Underworld films to The Chronicles of Riddick; indeed, how could we not?  It takes a special kind of talent to miserably fail to produce a good film and still wind up with something transcendentally entertaining.  Though, for all Underworld's charm, it has never managed to reach the heights of Riddick.
Perhaps, the producers must have mused, it would help if the next installment took place in outer space.
We can only surmise this was the logic being employed in the planning of the fourth Underworld production.  If one could create CG werewolves and vampires, then place them in space, the movie - at least on paper - could conceivably compete with The Chronicles of Riddick.  After all, what are Necromongers but space vampires?  What is Riddick but the last space-werewolf?
There are problems with such parallels, of course, as the films are inspired by very different sources.  While Riddick was clearly an idea formed during a game of Dungeons & Dragons (Vin Diesel has more or less said as much), the ideas forming the backbone of Underworld have their nexus in Vampire: The Masquerade.  One is a tabletop game; the other works best as a LARP.  And, more to the point, the former represents a more traditional conception of the geek, while the latter incorporates a slightly more gothic aesthetic (though still fundamentally geeky in nature: we would not discuss it otherwise).
Even so, could an Underworld movie, set in space and rendered in three dimensions, actually supplant The Chronicles of Riddick as the archetype of brilliantly bad movies?  Transcribed to mathematics, the numerology seems to add up.  But there is more than science to such things: to truly build a movie of the quality we are describing, one would need to fail artistically, as well.  Even then, the movie would need to exceed our expectations.
Otherwise, the best they could hope for would be another Avatar.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Progress Report - 5 Years Left

While it may seem like only yesterday, it has been twenty-one years since the producers of the Back to the Future series went back in time from 1989 to 1985 before jumping forward in time to the year 2015 to research the level of technology the future would hold.  Though they would never boast about such things, it bears mentioning that the advancements in the film were near-perfect recreations of the world as it was supposed to be.

Unfortunately, by bringing this knowledge back to 1989 and presenting it in a movie seen by millions, they created a tangent "alternate" universe, as displayed in the following graph:

The upper line represents the original timeline, as events were meant to occur.  The branching line, embellished with loops and the like, represent the timeline we occupy.  Because our sense of perspective was thrown off, the very evolution of our technological and cultural development was altered.  By this time, we were meant to be hydrating takeout burgers, with pizza just around the corner.  And video games, rather than appearing on touch screens, were supposed to be played without the use of our hands.  Indeed, by the year 2006, controls for 79% of electronic games should have already been toe-based.

We are, in many ways, behind the curve.

In an attempt to correct this, we in The Middle Room have decided to offer a kind of public service.  We have attentively re-watched Back to the Future, Part II in order to better understand where the human race needs to be by the year 2015.  With the knowledge, we've constructed a kind of progress report, examining how far we have to go.

By 2015, we are supposed to have had time to develop a sophisticated freeway system capable of managing the fleets of mass-produced hover cars which are readily available.  Mattel, one of our favorite toy companies, should be selling affordable, pink hover scooters.  But, as a temporal branch of the infinite possible parallel lines of our species' potential development, we have been lax in this area.  We've yet to produce any efficient hover-tech, let alone driven the price down to the point where ten-year-olds can afford it.

Determination: Needs serious improvement.  Tutoring recommended.

In Back to the Future, Part II, we observe that by the year 2015 the average American household should have a massive, flat screen television capable of displaying at least six programs simultaneously.

We already have screens available in the dimensions shown.  What's more, the picture quality on most new sets is superior to that shown in the movie.  While we're unaware of any sets currently structured to show six shows at once, this technology certainly exists: we just can't imagine a scenario in which it would be desirable.  Especially given that, in our civilization, if we wanted to see more than one show at a time we'd simply Tivo it or watch it online the following day.

As none of these technologies are shown in Back to the Future, Part II, we can only conclude that we're actually ahead of our parallel Earth when it comes to TV.

Determination: Exceeds expectations.

While we're pleased to see developments in optical effects and LCD lights here in 2010a, we feel like we have a long way to go.  We only have five years to develop jackets that can adjust size and dry out and shoes that self-lace.  While these are certainly not yet available, none of the technology seems unobtainable if we work at it.

As a first step, kids could start walking around with their pockets turned inside out.

Determination: On track, but in danger of falling behind.

Computer Effects:
We are presented with only a few passing glances at what computers could create, though one has to wonder if this was perhaps a case where the filmmakers were unable to duplicate the things they saw.  Nonetheless, we seem to have differed in our path taken here on this branching universe we call home.  It is a matter of style versus substance: the abandoned timeline focused on the latter, while we've specialized in the former.  Consider the computer screens in the diner McFly visited.  These were capable of rudimentary AI and speech recognition which continues to elude us, though we seem to be making progress in those areas.  Nevertheless, the actual visual effects were simple compared with what we can now accomplish.

Likewise, the shark in Jaws 19 was rudimentary in appearance, though the 3D holographic technology was far more advanced than we could hope to accomplish.  While Cameron's advancements on Avatar give us hope, we still have a ways to go.

On an unrelated note, we need to expedite our production of Jaws films if we hope to catch up.

Determination: Needs Improvement.

Weather Control:
Despite the best efforts by Bill Gates, our timeline's weather control technology is decades behind that of Earth Prime.  It is more than likely that our failure to develop hover technology in a timely fashion has aggravated the effects of Global Warming, forcing us to divert funds and environmental research from planetary development to damage control.  It didn't help that the results of the 2000 election were flipped, either.

Determination: In danger of failing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

We'd Like to Thank the Academy

If we could put aside, for a moment, debates over the merit of Avatar and The Hurt Locker, we would like to take a moment to focus in on two movies which were nominated for best picture but have little hope of actually winning: Up and District 9.  We were more than a little surprised to see these make the list, as they represent two genres the Academy has been quick to dismiss in the past: animation and science fiction movies grossing less than a billion dollars.

The Academy has had a long history of bias against genre films, and when they've deviated from this tradition, the results have often been comical.  After failing to honor Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, Return of the King swept the Oscars, picking up awards it had no right to claim, while not a single member of its phenomenal cast received so much as a nomination.  As much as we enjoyed seeing a fantasy movie make history, it was somewhat sobering to see it given an Oscar for "best song" against far more worthy contenders.

But, unlike Star Wars before it, at least The Lord of the Rings was honored.  Movies which have shaped our conception of film are routinely ignored by the Academy.  Where were the Best Picture nominations for Superman, Blade Runner, or Empire Strikes Back?  Limited to five spots, these movies weren't even acknowledged, let alone given the statue they deserved.  Meanwhile, animated films have been relegated to a separate category, protecting live-action films from the often superior offerings from Pixar.

Apparently, the Academy has turned over a new leaf.  They have expanded their list of nominations to ten, permitting them room to acknowledge films with geekier leanings alongside the usual suspects of dramas and historical epics.  At last, Pixar is permitted to compete, while a pair of science fiction epics are nominated, as well.

However, we find ourselves somewhat uneasy.  Of the genre films nominated, the movie with the best chance of winning is Avatar, a notion which has us conflicted.  While we enjoyed Avatar, the idea of dubbing it the "best picture of the year" strikes us deeply cynical.  And yet, in some ways, wasn't it?

We have long held the belief that many critics have offered an unbalanced appraisal of effects-driven films, decrying every issue with the acting and directing, while largely ignoring the technical marvels that advance the industry.  Certainly Avatar is destined to transform movie making.

But there is little denying that the movie fails to achieve any real emotional resonance.  It must be acknowledged that it's hard to imagine good writing would have hindered Avatar's successes.

Likewise, it's likely that Avatar's failings will magnify with time.  Influencing technology can be as much a curse as a blessing for a movie's legacy.  In the coming years, there will likely be dozens of large budget epics utilizing the techniques and devices created for Avatar.  Can Cameron's film really hope to stand up to these in comparison?

Fortunately, the Academy has nine other options to choose from.  Pundits seem convinced it will come down between The Hurt Locker (we keep meaning to get around to seeing that, by the way) and Avatar, though no one really knows how the increased field will play out.

If anything, we'd have liked to see a few more movies honored.  While we enjoyed District 9 and we are still in awe at what was accomplished with so small a budget, it's our considered and honest opinion that Star Trek is actually a better movie.  We can appreciate the Academy's reluctance to endorse both this and Avatar, but we still miss its absence.

Moreover, we were disappointed not to see Where the Wild Things Are nominated.  While Avatar may have moved into new technological areas, Where the Wild Things Are delved into themes that had never been considered in such a way before.  We ask you, which is more impressive?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Catching Up: Cloverfield

Every year, dozens of movies are released impacting geek culture.  Here in The Middle Room, we endeavor to view these in a timely fashion.  Unfortunately, from time to time, we are lax in our duties and movies of profound significance escape the theaters unseen.  It is fortunate, then, that the technology exists to view these after the fact. 
We refer, of course, to the digital video disc.  Do not trivialize such a wonder with its abbreviation.  Do not dare.
It was in such a manner that, at long last, we tracked down Cloverfield, one of the more famous American monster movies of the past decade.

And, despite the length of this introduction, despite all our pretense, we are sorry to report that we found the movie wanting.

While it certainly wasn't awful, neither was it particularly good.  The premise, of course, was brilliant - showcasing the horror of a monster movie from the point-of-view of a hand-held camera carried by one of the characters - but the execution failed to deliver.
The monster was well designed and digitally constructed, but played a minor role in the picture.  This was intentional, of course.  The movie was constructed using the monster as a backdrop - ultimately a form of setting - so as to focus on the characters.  While the camera elicits comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, the movie as a whole reminds us more of Spielberg's War of the Worlds and Shyamalan's Signs.  All three are first and foremost movies about characters, and all focus on cultivating an atmosphere of suspense.  These are, ultimately, survival movies more than science fiction.

But, when building a movie around its characters, it is essential to construct interesting and believable characters.  Cloverfield did neither: if the monster wants to show up and make a meal out of the movie's leads, it's hard to care.  In some ways, the monster felt more developed in its forty-five seconds of total screen time than the humans did throughout the entire movie.
Cloverfield built suspense competently, but it never bested either Signs or War of the Worlds in this respect.  While this was worth a viewing, it's hard to imagine bothering a second time.