Friday, December 30, 2011

2011, Worst to Best

The Middle Room has never looked favorably on top 10 lists. Are we so shallow, so simplistic, that we must examine only the good? Is not a year defined by both ups and downs, positive and negative?

And so, it only serves to reason that, in order to truly lay a year to rest, we must examine it in all its facets. Therefore, we present to you now a list of every single new movie with a theatrical release we watched this year, arranged from our least to most favorite:

16. Green Lantern: There's a case to be made that this may not quite be the worst movie we sat through this year, but there's no question it was the most disappointing. From the start, it was clear the filmmakers were adapting the right material: this was a modern version of the character, complete with the Lantern Corps in all its glory. On paper, it was precisely the formula used by Marvel to churn out film after film of geeky fun. But this movie sucked. The direction felt like it was lifted from bad sitcoms: nothing had any force or drama. So, for screwing up what we'd hoped would be our favorite live-action movie of the year, we're placing this dead last.

15. The Green Hornet: We actually caught this on DVD, having more important things to do than go see it in the theater. It wasn't all bad: there were some cool action sequences and funny moments, but it really failed to sell the idea of the Green Hornet. This character was a precursor to Batman and has some cool aspects - he's one of the few superheroes who manipulates his identities to achieve indirect results, for example. This movie tried to play the whole concept for laughs, as though the movie was too cool to adapt the Hornet and instead mocked it. The results were mixed, at best.

14. Cars 2: We actually liked Cars 2 quite a bit, despite the fact it was a really, really bad movie. The fact it's so low on this list is more reflective of how strong the other thirteen movies we saw were - this was, in fact, a very good year for film. But it was a bad year for Pixar. Everything that has made Pixar films work is missing: the movie's saving grace is that there's a brutally violent spy flick buried between scenes of Larry the Cable Guy trying to drive the audience to suicide. But the spy scenes actually deliver something cool, provided you have the patience to watch the rest.

13. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: This was a solid action movie, though we disagree with nearly every critic on the planet, all of whom seem convinced it was the best in the series. Sure, there were some awesome sequences, but the plot failed to create tension or deliver a single interesting twist. This falls short of the third entry in the series, which was far more engrossing.

12. The Adventures of Tintin: A solid CG pulp adventure, Tintin was certainly enjoyable. Most years, it would have ranked much higher, but there were a lot of good films released in 2011. And, while it was definitely fun, it never felt like it was anything more. Neither the characters nor the story managed to draw us in and make the movie particularly memorable.

11. Thor: This misses the top 10 by a hair. It was a spectacular movie, and the visual portrayal of Asgard was kind of fantastic. But ultimately, it was a great comedy/love story, while only being a good superhero movie. Everything felt toned down and de-powered to keep it grounded. It was a great film, but this fact kept us from really getting caught in its world.

10. Winnie the Pooh: If you'd asked us a year ago to bet on our top movie of 2011, we'd have pointed to this. The fact it's so far down our list is more reflective of our expectations than the movie's shortcomings. But, frankly, there were shortcomings. The story-line was a mess, due to the writers' insistence on dissecting the original stories then reassembling the pieces. On top of that, the music just didn't win us over the way the songs in the original did. All that said, the animation was beautiful and the voice casting was just about perfect, so it's still a great little movie.

9. Rango: This was probably the most bizarre movie we saw this year, which is saying something given the list includes Arthur Christmas and Cowboys and Aliens. Rango is positively engrossing and fascinating on several levels. However, it might be a little too weird for its own good. The characters aren't actually likable and some of the film's twists come off as weird for the sake of weird. But make no mistake: it's one of the most innovative and ambitious movies we saw this year.

Note: numbers 8 though 4 are basically a tie. Depending on the time of day, we'd likely arrange these differently: all were extremely good movies.

8. Cowboys and Aliens: Yeah, we know we're the only ones who actually like this movie, but that's okay. The film is nothing like what we'd expected. We went in anticipating a dark, alien horror/adventure set in the old west. What we got was a zany buddy-adventure movie with aliens, lasers, and gunfighters. But that's cool: we really like those things, too.

7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: Most people we've spoken to who have actually read the books rank this lower. Apparently, it's basically a by-the-numbers adaptation that adds very little. Having not read any of the novels, we found it an extremely exciting, emotionally engrossing conclusion to the films.

6. X-Men: First Class: This was shoved back two spots because we dislike how the movie handled most of its supporting cast. But every sequence with Charles and/or Magneto was phenomenal. The scenes with Erik tracking down and murdering Nazis were among the most satisfying ever filmed in a superhero movie. And then there's that cameo. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. Brilliant.

5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Who expected Rise of the Planet of the Apes to make this or any other best-of list? Certainly not Fox, who released it in August with a modest marketing campaign. But this thing took us all by surprise. The story focuses on Caesar, a super-intelligent ape who is actually written well and depicted effectively. The movie sells its premise with shocking competency, allowing this to blow away all expectations.

4. Captain America: The First Avenger: While we have issues with this film - especially with the fact that Captain America doesn't fight a single Nazi in the movie (unless you count Hydra agents, which you shouldn't) - there's no denying it was one of the most fun superhero films ever made.

The last five were a bit difficult to assign, and we're not sure about the order. But we feel fairly confident in the top three; both in the fact they belong at the top and in their respective order:

3. The Muppets: There's a reason this was one of the most popular movies of the year: it was damn good. The movie's decision to focus on three new characters, two humans and a new, generic Muppet, took courage. From the moment we heard that, we couldn't get our minds around why they would make the choice. But it turned out being an extremely inspired move. The movie has been accused by some of not focusing on the Muppets, but we don't believe this is fair. The brilliance in using new characters is that the movie is instead able to explore what the Muppets are and how they're viewed within their universe. It's a complex movie. And it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

2. Arthur Christmas: We knew very little about Arthur Christmas prior to its release. The trailers we'd seen were less than intriguing. Then came the reviews, which were overwhelmingly positive. Based on its score on Rotten Tomatoes, we decided to give the flick a shot. And it was amazing. The character work was very developed, the writing was strong, and the jokes were hilarious. If you miss this in the theaters, make sure you check it out on DVD next Christmas: it's fantastic.

1. Kung Fu Panda 2: What a weird year. Not only does Pixar not deserve the Oscar for Animated Picture, their offering doesn't even deserve a nomination. In our opinion, this one deserves the prize (though we won't be offended if Arthur Christmas, Rango, or even Winnie the Pooh steals it). Yeah, it was a fantastic year for animation, but a horrible one for Pixar. But Kung Fu Panda 2 took up the slack. This was everything we hoped the sequel would be and then some. This skipped the cheap jokes and childish antics that held back the first one, instead unleashing what we consider the single coolest movie of the year. It was smart, dramatic, funny, and - most importantly - absolutely kick ass. The fights in this thing were beautiful, the villain was scary, and the heroes were awesome.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

For the second time this summer, Fox has failed to produce a bad movie based on a beloved property, and has instead provided us with yet another prequel which revitalizes a franchise, over-performs at the box office, and wows audiences. We suspect several high-ranking executives will lose their jobs; at the very least, we can't imagine either director will be welcome back to work at the studio again.

You see, Fox has something of a reputation. This is the company that procrastinated so long after X-Men 2, Bryan Singer left for studios that would actually let him work. Only when they were safely rid of his competence, did Fox hire Brett Ratner to rush X-Men 3 to theaters.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes certainly contains Fox's fingerprints, particularly in the casting. One part after another is type cast: who runs the facility where apes are kept caged: how about the guy who played William Stryker? What about his border-line sociopathic son: is Draco Malfoy free? We need someone to wear a motion-capture suit and pretend they're an ape: Andy Serkis.

There's every indication that Fox was trying to crank out a mediocre movie. But something must have gone horribly wrong, because Rise of the Planet of the Apes was awesome.

Perhaps the problem was in the script, which used the absurdity of the premise as a backdrop to explore Caesar's character, making him the center of the movie while relegating humans to the supporting cast. Or the issue may have been with the director, who clearly grasped the movie's potential and somehow made it happen. Alternatively, you can blame Weta Digital, who handled the effects with their usual attention to realism and character. The cast was likewise solid, providing performances that were insightful or at least fun, as needed. In particular, Serkis's portrayal of Caesar was absolutely genius.

Like First Class before it, Rise of the Planet of the Apes reminds us that a prequel can work. Four stars on a scale relative to Blade Runner's five.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 17: Blade: Trinity

Wesley Snipes is currently imprisoned, ostensibly because of tax evasion, the same charge that brought down Al Capone. We are certain that, had they been able to prosecute Snipes for his involvement in Blade: Trinity, the FBI would certainly have done so. At least justice is served, albeit on a technicality.

The main problem with Blade Trinity is that Blade one and two were actually good movies - very good, in fact. And number three just doesn't live up to expectations. When the best thing about your movie is Ryan Reynolds auditioning to be Deadpool, you've got a problem.

There's a lot wrong with Trinity. The movie elevates insulting its audience's intelligence almost to an art form. This is a film where humans engage in fist fights with vampires and win, despite the fact the entire series has been spent establishing that vampires are superhumanly strong and fast. People literally shrug off punches which should be able to pulverize concrete - was anyone thinking while they were filming this?

And then there's Whistler. Both Whistlers, in fact. When the second installment bent over backwards to retcon Abraham Whistler's death in the first movie, we accepted it on principle (comic books have been retconning away deaths almost since their invention). But why resurrect the series' most interesting character in the second movie only to kill him at the start of the third? His death here didn't seem to have any real lasting consequences or impact.

Then there's his daughter, Abigail, who regularly beats up vampires while listening to her iPod. While driving to seek vengeance on a group of vampires who just murdered her friends, she spends her time assembling a set list to listen to. We are unclear whether this was supposed to be funny, whimsical, or perhaps gritty and realistic. Whatever the intent, the end result is simply bewildering.

But none of this compares with the movie's villain, who is (after a fashion) supposed to be Dracula. If you were to actively go out and try to cast the least appropriate actor alive for the role, we suspect you'd wind up choosing someone like Macaulay Culkin or Jason Alexander, and either would have made for a more entertaining Dracula than Dominic Purcell, best known for starring in the short-lived Fox show John Doe. Describing him as non-threatening is an understatement. When Purcell is stalking or killing his victims, it's incredibly challenging to stay awake.

It's unclear whether Blade: Trinity is supposed to be more horror or action, an important distinction, as we don't know whether to call it one of the least interesting horror movies of the past decade or one of the most boring action movies we've ever seen. Perhaps it can be both.

Regardless, this is a movie lacking impact. It's slow, pointless, and completely inoffensive. Pull out the harsh language, and we doubt there's enough gore or violence to even warrant an R rating. This isn't sickening, like Punisher: War Zone, nor is the embodiment of sleaze, like Frank Miller's The Spirit. In the end, it's just a tedious exercise that lacks the thrills of your average made-for-TV movie. What a waste of time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 16: Electra

Electra ultimately only has two flaws; unfortunately, they are not minor: 1. the movie ultimately misses the point, and 2. it is dull. That The Middle Room remains divided over which is the more serious infraction should serve to illustrate just how completely the film misses said point.

We are not experts on the comics Electra springs from, however we have some familiarity with the character. The movie portrays Electra as something of a reluctant assassin who kills because she's good at it, though the film strongly implies she hates the work.

This is, in a word, wrong.

It is our understanding that Electra does not generally do things she does not enjoy. She seems to be largely portrayed as something of psychotic killer, albeit a fairly affable one. She is, in some ways, a female counterpart to Wolverine.

To tedious effect, the movie attempts to explore Electra's deep seated psychological state, particularly her emotional state. This is, once more, a mistake. In fact, it's more or less the exact mistake made in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It is important to appreciate the fact that Electra is a character created by Frank Miller, a man who does not write female characters with complex psychological states (he tried once, and within 24 hours, three prostitutes were found dead and a large sum of hush money was trading hands).

While we appreciate the sentiment of wanting to add some substance to the character, it ultimately eliminates the point of the film altogether. Electra exists to be a ridiculous ninja assassin who assassinates ridiculous ninjas. That's what makes her fun: attempting to add gravitas will not end well.

In the movie's defense, there were a handful of fight sequences which were kind of fun, as well as a number of interesting supernatural supervillains for Electra to kill. The cold opening was a decent enough depiction of the character - likely as accurate as anything we'll ever see on the screen - and Jennifer Gardner certainly looks the part when she's not sniffling or crying (pity that eliminates most of the movie).

Despite making many of the same mistakes as Wolverine, this was ultimately far less offensive. But don't expect even something on the level of Ghost Rider.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 15: Catwoman

We saw this in the theater. Yes, it's true. We did not pay for the experience - a box set of Batman the Animated Series contained a free pass, and we used it.

We hated this movie, despising it for mismanaging the concept. And we swore to never watch it again.

Be did we not also swear to track down and watch - or re-watch - the worst of the worst superhero movies ever made? How is one to weigh oaths?

Well, we found an old scale in the back of The Middle Room and set our promises upon it. It turned out our promise to you outweighed the one we'd sworn to ourselves, so onto our Netflix queue it went.

This next part is difficult for us. Do not think we didn't debate the merits of keeping this to ourselves, of neither speaking nor writing the truth.

But that's just it, isn't it? The truth is the lifeblood of The Middle Room. Without a belief in the Universal concept of truth, what is an icosahedron but a three-dimensional, twenty sided polygonal device? Are we to believe it's turning is random?

No - it cannot be so. Truth exists, and the icosahedron exists to reveal it. And so must we.

We watched Catwoman for a second time. And we kind of enjoyed it.

It was bad; to be sure, a wasted opportunity to use a fantastic actress to explore one of DC's most misunderstood characters. Halle Berry could have made an excellent Selina Kyle, and instead they recast her as Peter Parker.

In structure, this was an attempt to recreate the success of Spiderman. And everything about the movie was bad - the writing, the direction, and especially the effects.

But it was gloriously bad, hilariously bad. It wasn't so bad as to be good, but it was so bad it was interesting and funny. Really funny. And actually kind of fun, provided you know what you're getting into.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 14: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

We could have skipped this - perhaps we should have - since this is a relatively new movie. We went when it was released in 2009, seeing and reviewing it on its opening day.

We remember thinking it was bad. In fact, we remember considering it awful. But when we came across a copy at the library, we felt we owed it to you to give it another shot.

We actually thought this time might be different. After all, we went in the first time not knowing what to expect and saw it on the big screen, which can sometimes be unforgiving. Now, re-watching it at home, we allowed ourselves to imagine it might not be so bad.

Our delusions were soon shattered. X-Men: Origins: Wolverine is, if anything, worse than we'd remembered it. After the film ended, we checked our initial review and saw we'd given it 1.5 stars. Chalk that up to weakness: this was a one star film if ever there was one.

What's baffling about Wolverine is that it ever came into being. Were a team of master filmmakers to set out with an unlimited budget and the express goal of producing a Wolverine movie that boring, they would have no doubt returned humiliated with a far more interesting picture than this. Producing a bad Wolverine movie is easy to imagine, but a boring one: how does that happen?

The movie's dull pacing and melodramatic storyline are draining, and the fact that Jackman and Schreiber are well cast only means there are good actors meandering through the pointless and meaningless drivel that form the backbone of the picture. Nothing begins to make sense: the villain's plans are so inanely overcomplicated, it's all but impossible to comprehend a scenario where he could have won. The minor characters are at best vague reflections of their comic counterparts. And the action sequences oscillate between being garish and boring.

The most shocking aspect of this movie may be that there's little indication the filmmakers realized they were producing something this bad. The direction suggests they believed they were making an epic, a dramatic tragedy that would appease its audience and critics both. It's a pity they didn't realize the truth: if they'd dropped some of the pretense and embraced camp it may actually have relieved some of the tedium that permeates this movie.

Not much, but anything would have helped.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 13: Supergirl

Supergirl first appeared in comics in 1959. For years she was a popular and iconic character. In 1984, she got her own movie. One year later, in 1985, DC Comics killed her. Having just seen said movie, we suspect the timing wasn't entirely coincidental.

That Supergirl is a dull, stupid, poorly made movie is hardly surprising. After all, the basis of this experiment requires us to track down the worst of the worst and examine them. And Supergirl is brimming with many of the same flaws we've seen a dozen times: bad script, bad directing, and bad acting, to name a few.

But the long list of things Supergirl does wrong is fundamentally less interesting that the shorter list of things the movie does right. The character is, for the most part, a decent adaptation of her comic origin, and - unlike the Superman movies - she actually faces off against a few giant monsters reminiscent of the type that plagued her and her cousin back in the golden age. The monsters were quite a bit cooler than we would have expected, given every other aspect of the movie. One, a giant, invisible beast, involved some outright impressive model work, and the other, a more traditional demon, had a fantastic design.
Never mind that the fights themselves were pitifully inadequate.

In addition, while Superman himself fails to appear in person (apparently due to scheduling conflicts), the movie does a good job of maintaining the presence of his legacy. From posters of The Man of Steel to supporting roles for Lois's cousin and even Jimmy Olsen, this feels solidly in continuity with the Reeve movies.

Finally, the movie actually bothers to explore the Phantom Zone, even if the portrayal offered is wanting.
Before we give the impression that all of this makes up for the film's flaws, however, we assure you this was as bad - if not worse - than either Superman III or IV.

There are dozens of problems with this movie, but the worst is pacing. The film spends an absurd amount of time on Supergirl's secret identity, friends, and her would-be boyfriend. None of it is remotely interesting.

Adding insult to injury, none of it makes sense, either. The premise of the movie is that the power source of Argo City (which survived the destruction of Krypton somehow) is lost. Without this, her family and neighbors will die in a matter of days, so Supergirl runs off to Earth to get it back. She brings a bracelet with her which functions as a homing device.

Remember, she has mere days to locate the device or everyone she cares about will perish.

So she enrolls in school, plays field hockey, and hangs out with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane's niece. At one point, she allows a lead towards the energy source to get away rather than endangering her completely superfluous secret identity.

But that's all par for the course, because absolutely nothing in this movie makes sense. The most telling scene may be one of the first. Upon arriving to Earth, Supergirl sets out in search of the missing McGuffin. She winds up talking to a pair of lecherous truckers, clearly intent on assaulting (and likely raping) her.

Let's set aside the fact the movie plays this for comedy.

She's wearing a suit like Superman's, and she identifies herself as his cousin. Her attackers don't believe her - fair enough: why would they? They make their intentions clear, and she promptly lifts one of them into the air by his chin before using her Superbreath to blow him through the wall of a construction site.
The other trucker then draws a knife and says, "You shouldn't have done that," because evidently he's the second stupidest person to exist in any of the myriad parallel Earths. We say second because someone on Earth Prime had to write that scene.

The entire movie plays out like this. If the movie had been less boring, some of these sequences might have qualified for an exemption under the "so bad it's good" clause of film quality. But, as it was, there was little redemption.

It's a bad movie - a very bad one, in fact - with a few scenes and concepts showing real potential. But, when all was said and done, the things the movie did competently may have made it worse: there was a clear blueprint stamped across the screen for how Supergirl could have been a worthwhile movie - even a great one. Knowing that makes the end result all the more painful to behold. It's like they were taunting us.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 12: Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone is the most recent of the Punisher films, and is the only one we in The Middle Room have actually seen. There have been three made to date; one released back in 1989, and two more recent. We would have taken any of the movies for this project, had they been readily available. As it is, we stumbled across this at our local library, where some sadistic person appears to have "donated" it.

Normally, we wouldn't watch a movie that was part of a series out of order, but every Punisher movie made to date has been a reboot. This, we understand, is due to the fact that every Punisher movie made to date has been an abysmal failure.

Before we go on, we feel it's important to stress that there was nothing remotely redeeming about this movie. Like many of the movies we've seen in this experiment, it was unclear what the movie was trying to be. The direction felt like it was intended for kids, with comedic jokes and over-the-top delivery. Several characters were played purely for slapstick. However, seeing as the "R" rating was attached for grotesque scenes of gore, young audiences were more or less out of the question.

If anything, War Zone felt like it was trying to be Robocop. However, it failed to deliver comedy that was actually funny, violence that was actually shocking, characters who were actually interesting, or any kind of subversive message. Instead, it was a tedious exercise in gore and badly-staged action sequences.

This wasn't the worst movie we've seen in the "Give Us Your Worst" series. But it's definitely in the lower half. If this doesn't immediately come off as sufficiently negative, we suggest you review our previous installments.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens & Movie Critics

While the final score is still settling, Cowboys & Aliens looks to be scoring around 44% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, which begs the question of how critics could be so far off. Because Cowboys & Aliens kicks ass.

Despite often being reviled as the lowest form of life on the planet, professional movie critics - on average - tend to be right about most movies. The Tomatometer is, more often than not, an accurate indication of whether a movie is good or not (though due to calibration issues it is less adept at correctly identifying how good or bad). However, every now and then, it is dead wrong.

The Middle Room exists to consider such anomalies in the hopes of identifying them in advance, and, while we're at it, potentially uncovering valuable insight into the abnormal psychology of the professional movie critic.

The key to understanding Cowboys & Aliens is that it's not what it appears to be. This isn't to say it isn't a western/SF crossover, which it certainly is, but rather that it isn't a dark and troubling movie. Rather, this is an exciting summer action/adventure movie set in a mash-up of science fiction and western tropes. In tone, this is closer to Pirates of the Caribbean than The Dark Knight. At times, it's downright campy, though never in a cloying way.

It is, above all else, a hell of a lot of fun.

We submit that the movie critic - or, to be fair, approximately 56% of movie critics - are mentally incapable of grasping this.

Certainly, the average critic has no problem handling mash-ups: we're relatively certain they teach that in film school. However, it seems to us that many critics are only able to view a movie within the framework they believe it's supposed to exist in. So, if they believe they're watching a sci-fi/western, they are unable to appreciate or even recognize that they're viewing a kick-ass adventure movie that's more comedy than horror.

It's not their fault: it may be a disability.

Cowboys & Aliens was made to be a pleasant experience. If you're unable to accept that it's not Predator, you'll be disappointed; it's far closer to Predators. It's summer entertainment at its best, which isn't to suggest it's unintelligent. In fact, quite the opposite: there's an art to making good popcorn flicks, and this does so extremely well.

Once again, Favreau has produced something that's simply joyous to watch. Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are fantastic in the movie for the same reason Robert Downey, Jr. was fantastic in Iron Man: they're clearly given room to play with their characters and the world.

On a five star scale with Pirates at the top, Cowboys & Aliens earns a four. It's fantastically entertaining, and is - at present - our favorite live-action movie of the year.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 11: The Spirit

This one almost slipped through the cracks of The Middle Room. We never saw it in theaters, though at one point we'd planned to do so, and we hadn't gotten around to seeing it on DVD. When we were planning this project, this movie had certainly come up, but then we'd somehow forgotten it along the way.

It wasn't until we were skimming the listings at Hulu that we stumbled across it. We put it on immediately, lest we forget once more.

We've seen many bad movies in the past month, many awful ones. We've seen movies so dull we could barely remain awake, so painfully stupid, we couldn't comprehend how they came into existence. Indeed, many of the movies we've already seen were worse than Frank Miller's adaptation of The Spirit.

But this is the only movie we've seen that was blasphemous. Will Eisner's The Spirit comics occupy a key place in the history of the medium: they are widely seen as the first truly literary superhero comics. They elevated the genre itself and inspired a generation of writers.

To say this failed to do them justice is an understatement so cynical as to be meaningless. This is their inversion, a sickeningly twisted revision that turns the Spirit into the very thing the comics were rising above: cheap, exploitative garbage. The worst kind of pulp. And, perhaps, the single worst work to bear Frank Miller's name.

And, given his writing on All-Star Batman and Robin and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, that is certainly saying something.

There's no mystery as to how this film came about. Miller had worked on Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, where he'd been credited as a co-director. There, he must have seen a world of film production far different from Hollywood blockbusters. Rodriguez's sets are famously fun, as are his movies. He's known for producing films quickly and cheaply, which he does by - let's be honest - cutting corners and not sweating every detail. Regardless, he's proven time and time again that he's able to make solid, entertaining movies at a fraction of the price of larger studios.

Clearly, this style isn't as easy to copy as Miller must have thought. And he certainly does try to copy it, using the same blue screen/CG backdrops and costuming approaches. But there's nothing similar about the results.

This movie looks and feels like it was written and directed by a group of fourteen year-old boys, using their home computers for special effects. If you've spent any time on Youtube watching fan videos of the Matrix, you've seen things that look precisely like this.

Nothing about Miller's The Spirit is entertaining. The backgrounds blend together into a uniform grey, while the characters feel like cheap knock-offs. Miller re-writes the Spirit's origin, giving him superpowers and reducing him to a generic costumed avenger. He abandoned the Spirit's classic blue coat, opting for a black trench coat instead. Simultaneously, the character's mental abilities have plummeted, and he's been re-imagined as a lunatic.

Little is consistent - in one scene, the Spirit is worshipped as a savior; in another, a crowd is disappointed when he doesn't fall to his death. Characters are psychotic in one scene and rational in the next. The only real constant is the film's exploitation of women, but then Frank Miller has been consistent in that regard over his entire career.

This movie was boring. It was pointless. Stupid beyond belief. The jokes - and there were many - weren't remotely funny, and the story was bizarre and random.

It was, in a word, garbage.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 10: Hulk

In the interest of full disclosure, we were specifically going to skip Ang Lee's Hulk, as The Middle Room has never acknowledged it to be a bad movie at all, nor are we about to shift positions having just re-watched it. It is a strange movie, surely; a baffling movie, a flawed movie; and yet, it is engrossing and beautiful, artistic and fascinating.

Our opinion is actually within the mainstream; the movie scores a passable 62% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has a number of fans. However, a majority of them exist outside the geek community. When the 2008 reboot was released, geek goodwill towards Ang Lee's version evaporated, and the consensus within our circles migrated to the view that this was a horrible film.

Because The Middle Room exists to explore and strengthen this very community, and because that is the origin of our audience, we have decided to re-watch this film and consider what we feel works and what clearly does not. We also hope this will help us better map the boundaries between good and bad superhero movies, a goal we lacked when starting this project that has since appeared on the horizon.

First, the bad. We acknowledge many flaws with this film, beginning with the plot and characters. Considered narratively, Hulk makes little sense, particularly towards the end. Likewise, the two main characters, Bruce and Betty, are of little interest, though General Ross and Bruce's father are more interesting. Lee's decision to focus thematically on repression, rather than anger, is a clear miscalculation, as well.

With so many issues, how can we call this a good movie? While the script was broken, the direction - in our opinion, at least - was awesome. The visual component was spectacular, despite some dated CG. In fact, even this was well used. While most superhero movies attempt to transform their concepts into something that could exist in the real world, Ang Lee treats the Hulk like a comic book superhero, and unapologetically allows him to exist as he is. That he's a cartoon superimposed on a live-action world isn't a joke, because Lee doesn't treat him as a joke: he takes the concept, in all its absurd glory, seriously.

We can't think of another non-comedy live-action superhero film so courageous, and we love this movie for that.

On top of the Hulk himself, there's a sense of artistic style permeating every frame of this film. In this genre, the use of color is second only to Dick Tracy. The lab equipment has a super-science sensibility that sets the tone up front - this isn't our world; it's a far more interesting one.

And, more than anything else, we absolutely adore the panelling effect used to give the film the feeling of a comic book. Could this have been better integrated? Perhaps. But it works incredibly well, and we wish other directors would steal the idea when editing their superhero movies.

As for the movie's pacing, while we can certainly appreciate why some find it boring, it's not a problem we've ever had. We find Hulk fascinating from start to finish, despite - and in some cases because of - it's flaws. Nothing about the end fight makes sense, and yet... there's something awesome about the Hulk fighting a lightning monster in the clouds, illustrated entirely by still flashes of comic-style images. Even when the story falls apart, it does so in the style of a comic book.

It's that style we find missing in most of the other movies we've seen in this series. If anything, Schumacher's Batman movies came closest, though they were pale imitations crafted by a hack who clearly understood nothing of what he was trying to adapt. Ang Lee, while perhaps not entirely grasping the Hulk, demonstrated a profound comprehension of the comic medium itself at a visceral level that's seldom been duplicated.

This is a movie about superheroes and comic books, a movie unafraid to showcase their impossible absurdity and unreal power. This is a flawed work of art, but a work of art, nonetheless.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

A movie like Captain America offers its viewers two choices: to either accept what is undoubtably an amazing experience which is truer and more appropriate to the character than we could ever have hoped for, or to pick apart the movie and find those aspects that hold back the movie.

Here in The Middle Room, we shall do both.

It is important not to overlook the forest through the trees. This is a period superhero flick, a World War II adventure following Marvel Comics's most archetypal hero through his origin. And it's a damn good one. This is Captain America in his own element, in his own time. It establishes him as part of his era, all while setting him up as a fish out water in The Avengers and his inevitable modern day sequel.

The action sequences are pure fun, and the power levels are spot-on. This is an old-school adventure story that hits the right beats and looks pitch perfect.

The characters are right. Captain America comes off as confident and unwavering, and not solely because of his transformation. The supporting characters and villains are likewise universally excellent, from Peggy Carter to the Red Skull.

And, most impressively, this ties everything that's come before it into a comprehensive package. Threads from all four prior Marvel Universe movies - Iron Man 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor - are connected in ways that miraculously enhance this movie, rather than bogging it down.

The action was exciting, the jokes were funny, and the tension was earned. As a movie this worked. As a period piece, it worked. And as a superhero film, it worked.

And yet, there was something bothering us, something that felt off. To be honest, it took us a while to put our finger on it. But there was certainly something missing.

There simply wasn't enough time in one movie to properly build Captain America's legend to where it needed to be. There were a number of montages showing Captain America fighting, but there was one too few. We needed to see him involved in more than one campaign against the Red Skull.

At no point in this movie did we see Captain America fight a single Nazi: only Hydra agents. And Hydra, we are quickly informed, no longer considers itself aligned with Germany. Strictly speaking, the Red Skull did far more damage to the Nazi agenda in the course of the film than Captain America. We needed the sense that Captain America fought in dozens of battles, not five or six. We needed to see him really become a leader and step into his own. We needed to see the world realize he was a superhero and realize Bucky was his sidekick.

Frankly, we needed three movies, not one. But that wasn't going to happen. Truth be told, this was already the movie we never thought we'd get. It was a gift, a nerd miracle.

And this was great. It was stylized, exciting, and fun. We've heard a lot of complaints coming from some critics that the last few Marvel movies feel more like trailers for the Avengers than movies in their own right.

And they're right. But remember how everyone used to say trailers were usually better than movies themselves? This is a two-hour long trailer for next year's Avengers, and that's kind of awesome, even if it really needed to be six hours long.

On the same scale as Iron Man, we'll award this a similar four out of five star rating.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 9: Swamp Thing

There is some dissension in The Middle Room over whether or not this movie belongs in this series at all. While it was certainly not a good movie under any meaningful definition of the term, neither is it objectively an awful one. In fact, it holds a 62% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a hair's breath above bad. This was actually what we disliked about the film.

The campy writing and cheesy action were, at times, kind of fun. And the costume, while clearly a rubber suit, was at least a decent looking rubber suit. The movie had a pulpy B-horror vibe that wanted to break free. Unfortunately, it was held in check by a director demonstrating his ability to Hollywood producers.

We don't fault Wes Craven for trying to make a solid flick, but the end result lacked impact. It feels small, tedious, and at times boring. Still, the absurdity of its villain is enough to salvage the movie, at least a little. We didn't feel like we got much out of watching Swamp Thing, and are left wondering if the movie would have had more of an impact had it been a worse film. Certainly, the best case would have been for the movie to have been given a fantastic script, but barring that, we'd almost have rather seen it directed by a hack who left us wallowing in its awfulness, as opposed to a competent director who dragged it up to mediocrity.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Second Part of the Seventh Part of Something

We are not, strictly speaking, the world's largest Harry Potter fans. We have not read the books, and we didn't start watching these in the theater until the third movie. Similarly, while we have seen every Harry Potter film, we've seen each of them once. They are neither our favorite movies, nor our favorite genre films.

But, as geeks, they have certainly been good to us.

There can be little debate that the movies have been solid from the start, and further that they've improved over time. No other film series has managed half as many entries without at least one major misstep. Likewise, the fact the series has endured eight films without major cast changes earns it a mark of respect.

As the weekend draws to a close, it appears that the finale to Potter will claim the title of highest grossing weekend of all time. And, frankly, it earned the honor. This is the best movie of the series and one of the best films of the year. It hits the right notes, and delivers an experience that is nostalgic, engaging, and dramatic.

It's worth taking a moment to reflect on the rarity of a film series ending on its highest note. This is incredibly rare in film. In fact, we're at a loss to think of another case where more than two good movies culminated in a finale superior to its predecessors.

Both the Star Wars trilogy (we're doing Lucas the favor of ignoring the prequels entirely) and Lord of the Rings were good throughout (in fact, were quite a bit better than the Potter series), but both ended with films that fell short of their predecessors. The issue seems to come down to pandering: whether it's the Ewok village or a computer-rendered Legolas killing an oliphant and sliding down its trunk, these movies have a way of dating themselves.

But the end of Harry Potter contained nothing of the sort. In a sense, the series had gotten that out of the way during the first few installments. It had, to put it another way, grown out of it. Nothing campy was left; no matter how ostensibly silly aspects concept might have been, the producers accepted them and treated them seriously. The goblins, trolls, giant spiders, and dragons were elements of the setting and plot, but the film focused on the drama of the characters' lives.

If more genre films were made this way, our theaters would be a far better place.

The best scenes are small moments. Characters reacting to revelations realistically. Young characters we've watched for years finally growing up and coming into their own, while older characters let down their guard and show where they really stand and how they feel.

The fights are also good, though they certainly could have been better. If there's one area that could have been improved, this is likely it: the war was closer in scale to what we've seen in the Narnia movies than the Lord of the Rings. But the emotions were closer to the latter, which is far more important in the long run.

On a five star scale against nothing less than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows earns four. This is certainly the best live-action film we've seen this summer, and comes close to overtaking Kung Fu Panda 2 as best overall.

We'd tell you it's worth seeing this, but there's little point: we've seen the box-office estimates for the weekend, and odds are you've already gone.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Movie Review: Winnie the Pooh

A few months ago, when we wrote our annual Futures Market post, we made it clear that while we are excited about the finale of the Potter franchise (we'll get to it soon), we were far more excited that Disney was revisiting the Hundred Acre Wood. The months since then have changed nothing.

On opening night, we trekked to the theater, purchased our tickets, laughed at those in the crowded lines outside the sold-out showings of Harry Potter, and went in to enjoy the first true G-rated movie we've seen in years. Sure, Cars was technically rated G, but it was a G-rating enhanced with torture, murder, assassination, and dead bodies. Winnie the Pooh had none of these things (well, perhaps a little unintentional torture perpetrated by Tigger, but it was all in good fun).

The movie is, above all else, charming. Disney has thrown out decades of cloying Pooh movies and television shows made to cash in on the franchise, and returned stylistically to their original shorts. The animation is more or less as it was, and the voice casting is topnotch. John Cleese's narration was fantastic, and Craig Ferguson's casting as Owl was inspired. Not surprisingly, though, the movie was stolen by the legendary Bud Luckey, whose interpretation of Eeyore surpassed even the original.

This feels like a sequel to the "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," and, aside from a brief CG-fueled dream about honey, it looks like it could have been released in the 1970's. It's as funny and sweet as it should be, and it's a pleasure to see this style of animation back on the big screen.

That said, there was certainly room for improvement. The movie is based on three of Milne's original stories, but rather than keep them separate, the script drops the chapter structure and fuses them together, ostensibly into a single narrative. That the individual plot-lines never coalesce isn't an issue - Pooh endures because of the strength of its individual moments, not its overarching story - that they abandoned the opportunity to retain the segmented chapters of the original is a bit disappointing.

In addition, neither the music or songs pack quite the punch we wanted. Nothing is offensively bad, but neither does it connect. The score, in particular, tries too hard to be something new. If the animation is classic Pooh, why not the sound? Why not use the original compositions?

Ultimately, though, for fans of the original, this is pure nostalgia. It's beautiful and light, hilarious and gentle. On a five star scale relative to the original, we award this four.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 8: Batman & Robin

It is commonly accepted as fact that, between Schumacher's two painfully awful Batman movies, this is the worst. We're not entirely sure this is fair, as the movies are, on some level, so different as to be incomparable. It is something like choosing between a rotten, worm-ridden apple and molding, maggot-infested orange. Precisely like that, as a matter of fact.

Objectively, as a work of anti-art, this is unquestionably worse. If badness is quantified mathematically, there can be little question that Batman Forever has far less of it than Batman & Robin; by a magnitude of 6.7 Ratners*, in fact, according to our calculations.

However, because of the concentration of badness, this was actually less boring. Make no mistake: there were still long, dull, mind-numbing sequences which had us eying our cyanide pills (in accordance with human rights requirements, we handed them out in The Middle Room prior to starting this series of articles), but it was actually slightly more engaging than its predecessor.

Upon watching Batman & Robin, there are questions that spring to mind. Questions like, why? How? And does this prove God's nonexistence and that we live in a cold, meaningless Universe devoid of care and compassion?

The Middle Room will seek to answer these questions, to the extent answers are possible.

First, "Why?" This is the most troubling of the three, by far. We have two possible explanations, though neither is particularly comforting. It is possible that Batman & Robin was actually the movie that Joel Schumacher wanted to make. In fact, in hindsight, it seems like Batman Forever may have reflected Schumacher being stifled by producers holding him back. Perhaps Batman & Robin is a window in its creator's psyche, unfiltered and unconstrained.

If this is indeed the case, Schumacher should be institutionalized to protect the public.

As impossible as it may seem, however, the alternative is even more distressing. What if Batman & Robin was the movie Joel Schumacher believed the world wanted? What if he made it for us?

The level of cynicism this hypothesizes lies far beyond the boundaries of mere nihilism. Indeed, there is neither word nor concept for this, nor should we wish there to be.

Our second question, "How?" is no less baffling. Movies have producers, editors, and readers. That no one stopped the movie from being made seems utterly impossible in hindsight. Even if the producers couldn't perceive what was happening, we find it surprising that none of the camera operators, cinematographers, or key grips sabotaged the picture to save the public and the iconic characters.

The only answer seems to be momentum. Somehow, the movie, fast-tracked into production, was finished before there was time to reflect. And once it was done, nothing less than madness must have compelled the company to release to the public.

The Middle Room's third and final inquiry concerns the non-existence of any benevolent power in the Universe. Having just finished watching Batman & Robin, our members are in full agreement: Cthulhu fhtagn.

* Or 5.5 Greenaways, for our European readers more familiar with the metric system.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 7: Batman Forever

It would not be accurate to say that we remembered Batman Forever fondly, however our recollections were not altogether negative. Sure, we remembered this as a bad movie - a very bad movie, in fact - but we also remembered a sort of campy charm, of parts that were fun enough to offer some consolation despite how bad the rest was.

Our memory, it seems, is not infallible. This movie was, start to finish, an abysmal waste with no redeeming aspects whatsoever, aside from the song that plays during the closing credits (one of just two U2 songs we've a soft spot for). None of the moments we recalled favorably held up. Jim Carrey's Riddler, while almost a functional homage to Frank Gorshin, falls short and comes off as cheap, cartoonish schtick. The "Holy-rusted-metal" line: no longer funny.

Picking out individual flaws while watching this movie is akin to looking for a needle while swimming in a vat of needles (easy to find, because there seem to be needles sticking into your eyes). Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face (renamed, for no conceivable reason, "Harvey Two-Face") is nothing more a facsimile of Nicholson's Joker, with all of Dent's psychological complexity thrown out in favor of maniacal comic relief. Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson is even worse: far too old for the role, he makes no sense whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Val Kilmer (who, by rights, could have been an inspired casting choice, were this a far better movie) as Batman acts without any degree of logic or reason. His motivation is ground into the dirt by a director who clearly lacks any comprehension of the character.

The love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian, is potentially more insane than any of the villains. In fact, the overall portrayal of women in this movie is outright sickening. As is the movie itself.

Ultimately, these complaints are trivial in the scheme of things. With good movies, character, plot, setting, dialogue, direction, cinematography and dozens of other factors are of paramount importance. But, we are learning that only a single question matters when it comes to bad films.

Was this interesting to watch in the least?

And, in the case of Batman Forever, the answer is no. It is a boring, pointless exercise in camp that is neither fun nor funny.

Soon we'll have to confront another question: is Batman and Robin actually worse?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

DVD Review: Green Lantern: Emerald Knights

Emerald Knights is a decent, though unexceptional, DVD. Like Gotham Knight, it's a loosely-connected collection of shorts designed to coincide with a feature film released in the theaters. Also like Gotham Knight, Emerald Knights feels rushed. Still, between the two, Emerald Knights is quite a bit better.

Most of the short stories are adapted directly from classic Lantern tales; in some cases, the scripts are almost verbatim. The DVD's main problem comes from tone. Understandably, the producers tried to tie the short stories together using a larger frame, which set the mood of the piece. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that mood: they went with a darker, almost military science fiction feel, and there's certainly precedent for this in the Lantern Universe.

But that wasn't the right tone for the stories being told (or at least most of them). Similarly, Emerald Knights approaches the Corps with a similar philosophy used in First Flight (in fact, it's easy to forget the movies aren't in continuity, despite the presence of Sinestro). Once again, the rings are greatly reduced in power, playing up the science fiction and playing down the superheroism. We're of the opinion that the concept works best when the two are merged, but we respect that there's room for debate.

The standout story focused on Laira, a Green Lantern forced to choose between loyalty to the Corps and to her family. The story, while relatively generic, was well orchestrated, and the action sequences were exciting and fun to watch. The adaptation of Mogo's origin was also a welcome addition.

The worst of the bunch was the Abin Sur story, which did a great disservice to the comic it was based on. The original provided a sense of mysticism, which seems to have been excised from this setting. In place of the prophecy of The Blackest Night, we got a teaser for the Sinestro Corps War. While we'd love to see that movie made, it just doesn't have the same impact or poetry, and the story just winds up feeling pointless.

The movie's saving grace comes in the animation and designs, which are extremely strong. But, overall, the movie feels bogged down. Nathan Fillion, who should have been the ideal choice for Hal Jordan, feels wasted. Fillion is at his best when he's given room to have fun - so is Hal Jordan, for that matter. And this production just didn't leave room for fun.

Warner Bros. has released some phenomenal direct-to-DVD features over the past few years, several of which were better than most of what's shown in theaters. While Emerald Knights isn't a bad picture, it certainly wouldn't deserve a theatrical release. But, then again, neither did the live action Green Lantern.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 6: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was something of a wild card: it's been so long since we last saw it, we'd no idea what to expect. Our memories were hazy enough that, despite our negative associations, we actually allowed ourselves the luxury of hoping this would offer, at the very least, a fun experience.

But we have learned better. In this world there is no hope, no joy. Because this is the world that produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.

While the second movie is certainly flawed, we found the experience of watching Secret of the Ooze an overall pleasant and nostalgic one. This is its predecessor's dark reflection: an empty, soulless look back at everything not worth remembering about the years we grew up in.

Every joke - almost every line - dates the picture, with references to everything from Wayne's World to Bill and Ted. This isn't a trip back to feudal Japan: it's a trip back to 1993. And it isn't a pleasant one.

The puppets and suits had been mixed in the first two movies; this time they're consistently awful. Even worse, Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who may have salvaged the second film single-handed, has been replaced with a pale imitation.

There was nothing intriguing, fun, or salvageable in Turtles III. Nothing. This was a tedious, boring production, not even a worthy sequel to part 2, let alone the original or the comic origins.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 5: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze

Turtles 2 was not, by any metric we're familiar with, a good film. It was badly acted, badly written, badly directed, badly edited, badly costumed, and... Vanilla Ice is in it. It is clearly a bad movie.

On top of that, it Turtles 2 came on the heels of what was actually a pretty good first movie, which took its source material seriously and did the best it could with a limited budget. In part 1, the characters had defined arcs, the dialogue was solid, and the pacing worked. All of that was abandoned in part 2 to make room for cheap camp and awful schtick.

Even if we hadn't remembered this going in, we perceived this fact early on: there was no mistaking this for anything other than a bad sequel trying to cash in on the franchise without a second thought about the dignity of the franchise.

This is why we tried so hard not to enjoy Secret of the Ooze. We're still trying to understand what went wrong.

Because we kind of liked it.

Perhaps it's that we saw this when it was first released in theaters and found ourselves caught up in the nostalgia of viewing it again. It may be a simple case of warped perspectives: we've seen some awfully bad movies in the past week, and it could be beginning to have an effect. Or maybe Secret of the Ooze really is one of those movies that's so bad it's good.

Whatever the cause, we enjoyed watching this a lot more than it deserves. We found ourselves laughing quite a lot; with or at the movie, it makes little difference. Even the dreaded appearance by Vanilla Ice was strangely entertaining in its dated stupidity.

It didn't hurt that, for all its faults, the movie retained Kevin Clash as the puppeteer of Splinter. Hand chosen and trained by Henson, Clash is a master puppeteer in his own right. He also seemed to be the one actor who refused to phone in his performance for this movie, opting instead to actually try. The puppet may have been replaced by a less interesting make, but Clash is topnotch.

We're hesitant to recommend this to others, but we will say we enjoyed revisiting this more than any of the other movies we've seen so far as part of this series. Not that that's a particularly high bar.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part IV: The Quest for Peace

Time, on the internet, is relative. Of course, time everywhere is relative, but even relative time is relative when it's on the internet. It is, simply stated, relativity squared.

We offer this example. You, dear reader, are no doubt reading this a day or two after our discussion of Superman III. As such, you may be under the impression that we in The Middle Room watched Superman III, waited a proportionate amount of time, and then put on Superman IV.

This would be incorrect. No, our commitment to this endeavor is greater than that: we watched Superman three and four back-to-back, with only a short reprieve between films.

Such is the passage of time conflated and warped by the internet.

Superman IV (or 4, four, 5 - 1, or -e raised to the pi times i power divided by .25, depending on your preferred nomenclature): The Quest for Peace is an incredibly bad movie, except when it's not. There are very few instances where this exception applies, but we were surprised to find a few moments that seemed not awful.

Clark's visit to the family farm, for example, was fairly well handled, as was his conversation with Lois, when she remembered the events of Superman 2. That the scene ended with him wiping her memory once more undermined any impact, but in a movie this bad we don't expect anything good to last and take any such moments, no matter how fleeting, wherever we find them.

Likewise, we were impressed with some of how the movie approached Superman's internal conflict as he decided whether or not to rid the world of nuclear weapons. While it's tempting to dismiss this movie out of hand, this did touch upon themes that play out in several of comics' most significant stories: namely, what responsibility superheroes have to change the world, rather than just upholding the status quo, and where the line exists between hero and conqueror.

Unfortunately, the movie only touched on such themes, toying briefly with these ideas, then tossing them aside. Far more time was invested in Superman having to fake a double-date, with Clark seeing one woman and Superman the other, a sequence that tried to be intentionally funny, failed, and yet was so stupid as to be unintentionally hilarious anyway.

All of this, of course, was just setting the stage for a new Luthor-created supervillain, named "Nuclear-Man." Why the filmmakers went with so idiotic a creation rather than using an established idiotic Superman villain is baffling, to say the least.

The fights - indeed all of the effects - were bad; the blue-screen work among the worst ever made. Even the costuming is painful to look at: the stitching on the 'S' logo on Superman's cape is shoddy beyond belief.

Add to that an unparalleled level of absurdity and illogic - Superman fixes the Great Wall of China with his eyes, then later rescues a woman in the depths of space (no space suit, no air; he just catches her and returns her safely to Earth) - and it's easy to see why this is numbered among the worst superhero movies ever made.

To its credit, at 90 minutes, we found it easier to sit through than Superman III.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 3: Superman III

There are coincidences in this world; as often as not, we are indeed playthings of chance. But not this time. No, the alignment of the third and fourth installments of this series with the third and fourth installments of the Superman franchise is by design.

It was planned. Unlike, we suspect, the plot of Superman III.

The movie started innocuously enough as a comedy. The first few scenes came off as generic comedy. Great filmmaking, surely not, but nothing ostensibly worse than much of Superman II (which, we fear, is remembered more fondly than perhaps it deserves).

For a solid half hour, we began to wonder if Superman III was perhaps remembered less favorably than it should have been. The early scenes with Pryor start out funny, the Superman bits are serviceable as light comic adventure, and Lana is well portrayed.

But then something horrible happened. The movie kept going. While the first half hour was passable, the second is tedious. The third, outright painful. And so on, for the movie's (we're not bothering to look it up, so we'll estimate) eight hour runtime.

There was a brief reprieve when the movie integrated a variation of red kryptonite (obnoxiously colored green, to avoid confusing the audience) into the story. When an unshaven Superman began acting like a complete di...fferent person, the movie picked up some needed (if mostly unintentional) humor. Seeing Superman throwing back whiskey and flicking peanuts to break bottles in a bar was an enjoyable diversion.

Unfortunately, it couldn't last. When Superman returned to his benevolent ways, the movie began to bore us once more. A few good moments aside, Superman III was a combination of bad filmmaking and long length that creates a perfect storm. Unfortunately, we found ourselves caught in that storm, held by oath to finish the damn movie.

Perhaps Part 4 will be kinder to us.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 2: Howard the Duck

Widely considered one of the worst movies ever made, we don't recall ever having seen Howard the Duck in its entirety. Some of us have memories - somewhat repressed - of having seen moments, images and scenes, of the film when we were children, but this is the first time The Middle Room has screened the movie.

From a critical standpoint, there is little doubt that the film is bad, technically speaking. And we certainly have no need to ever see it again. However, watching it on the heels of the irredeemable Barb Wire, we were more fascinated than anything else. The puppet was clearly thrown together in a shop, but the movie itself feels like it was produced on another world. The notion that anyone on our Earth could have greenlit this, let alone filmed it, is impossible to comprehend.

We certainly did not like the film, however it managed to earn our grudging respect. The movie was fearless in walking a tightrope-thin line between genres, tones, and target audiences. The puppetry was pure kid's stuff, while the subject of the movie's jokes felt startlingly adult. There wasn't much in the way of death, but the monster was genuinely disturbing.

In tone, this was similar to Who Framed Roger Rabbit: cartoon noir. However, while Roger was actually funny, moving, and exciting, Howard was just... bizarre.

For all the movie's flaws, however, it wasn't boring, save the extended chase scene towards the end. Overall, it was a strange and sometimes unpleasant thing to behold, but it was, after a fashion, intriguing. This wasn't so bad it was good, but it was so weird it was interesting. A bad comic book movie, certainly. But, by our estimation, far from the worst.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Give Us Your Worst, Part 1: Barb Wire

Barb Wire is either one of the worst movies we've ever seen or a brilliant work of subversive filmmaking, and we're fairly certain it's not a brilliant work of subversive filmmaking.

We should begin by mentioning we have some familiarity with the source material: years ago, we collected a number of Dark Horse Comics, including several which included the character this movie was ostensibly based on. We say "ostensibly," because the entire premise of the comics seemed to be abandoned and replaced with a generic post-apocalyptic battlefield.

We should probably also mention that the film's plot structure, characters, and ending were all intended as either a tribute to or a facsimile of Casablanca. It was, from a cynical point of view, almost a remake. If we worked on or were related to anyone who had worked on Casablanca, we'd feel awfully insulted right now.

One does not view a movie like Barb Wire with the expectation of seeing something good, however we were surprised to find that the movie was actually significantly more awful than we were expecting. The movie passed beyond boring almost immediately, into a state of hyper-dullness, the existence of which had previously only been hypothesized by theoretical physicists. To say the movie made no sense belies the depth of its stupidity: not only did the film fail to come together as a whole, not only did individual characters make no sense in their motives and traits, but individual scenes failed to follow basic laws of logic and continuity. In a real sense, this movie was a fractal of irrationality: the closer you looked at any detail, the dumber it became.

This affects the watcher in an almost existential fashion. Staring into so twisted and vapid an abyss, the mind reels, trying to find some shred of logic to grasp hold of. And, in such a stupor, we found meaning.

Barb Wire can be viewed as the inevitable result of the objectification of women in comics. The outfits worn by Pamela Anderson are actually fairly accurate to her comic origins. In turn, her character design in the comics is devolved from the superheroines before her. The movie character is every comic book woman in a twisted funhouse mirror: all stylization and cartoonish charm stripped away, we're left with a reality so warped, it's literally sickening to watch.

In this sense, Barb Wire becomes a cautionary tale to those who produce and encourage such poor artistic sensibilities. This movie's existence was a result of momentum, an unavoidable consequence of the sins of the comic industry. The significance of this realization is truly horrific: it will probably happen again.

It will, in all likelihood, not be Barb Wire adapted but another character, and yet the result will be same: a long, dull production whose existence tarnishes the image of both film and comics alike.

And, worse still, we'll have to sit through that monstrosity, as well. Because we have sworn to.

We beg the industry responsible to turn back while there's still time. But we fear it may already be too late.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

March to a Prelude to a Countdown to Give Us Your Worst. Of Infinite Something.

It is with a degree of shame that The Middle Room confesses to a sort of prejudice when it comes to comic book movies. While we'd like to claim we've seen them all, the truth remains that there remains a class of film we have often avoided.

We refer, of course, to the truly awful; the abysmal.

Yes, as strange as it seems, there are a number of comic book-based films we've never seen or have seen only once, years ago. This seems wrong, somehow, so we have decided to make amends.

By candlelight, we have sworn on the spirits of our parents to devote our lives to warring against criminals. No, wait. That was Batman.

By the light of a 60 watt halogen bulb we purchased at the Home Depot, we have sworn to seek out those comic book films we've previously avoided due to bad reviews and even worse trailers. Further, we've sworn to track down movies we haven't seen since we were children - movies like Supergirl and the last two Superman films.

We will not shy away from the worst. And, to prove our sincerity, we will begin with Barb Wire. After that, whatever we can dredge up: the Schumacher Batman films, the Punisher movies (there have been three, by our count, and we've never even seen one), and so on and so forth. If you have suggestions, we'd love to hear them. We'll try to get to them all, if time and sanity permit.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Movie Review: Cars 2

Cars 2 is something of a conundrum. It is, as you've no doubt heard, not Pixar's best. In fact, it seems nestled securely in the spot second from the bottom, just above A Bug's Life and just below the original Cars. But this is an overall assessment: Cars 2 is dragged down by its average. Taken as a whole, the movie is mixed. Fortunately, in this case, that's a misleading metric.

To understand Cars 2, you must understand the movie's hierarchy of leads. The main focus of the movie is Mater. Yes, Larry the Cable Guy is indisputably the star. Wilson's Lightning McQueen isn't even #2: that's a tie between two new characters, Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, a pair of British secret agents. Once the movie gets going, Lightning McQueen is relegated to a B-plot about racing, while Mater helps the British spies try and save the world.

Mater is, of course, annoying. The character is as cloying as ever, and the decision to base a movie around him was ill-advised. On top of that, the dialogue throughout lacks the wit and energy we've come to expect from Pixar.

On the other hand, the visuals remain crisp and intriguing, and the world-building is fun and engrossing. These aren't the reasons we're giving the movie our recommendation, however. That, unfortunately, involves spoilers. If you're already planning to see Cars 2 in the theater, you may want to stop here. If not, keep reading: we may change your mind.

Cars 2 is the single most violent G-rated movie we've ever seen.

When we say that Cars 2 is in part a spy movie, we mean that lives are at stake. And when we say that Finn McMissile is James Bond's car, we're not just referring to his make and gadgets. Finn McMissile smiles and tells jokes. He has a sense of humor about him and seems to enjoy his work. But make no mistake: he is a blunt object, a stone-cold killer who doesn't pull punches or hesitate to pull the trigger.

And for good reason: the villains are even more ruthless. We see a captured agent - a good guy - tortured and killed. Horribly. In a G-rated kid's film. And believe us when we say that isn't the most horrific thing in the movie. This movie isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. For that reason, we're willing to overlook an awful lot of bad slapstick involving a rusty tow truck.

The gorgeous settings overlaid with music composed by Michael Giacchino didn't hurt either.

Cars 2 is a G-rated film with a shocking level of violence downplayed by the fact the characters are inhuman and the medium is animation. It's badly written, yet fascinatingly rendered. It panders to its youngest viewers with the most obnoxious character Pixar's ever produced, while shifting back and forth between spies and cutthroat assassins in sequences reminiscent of classic Bond.

As we said before, it's not as good a movie as Cars 1. However, we enjoyed it more. Because, for all its faults, it's a hell of a ride.

Three stars on the Pixar scale. The critics aren't exactly wrong when they lambast this as an inferior product, but we still think there's an awful lot to like here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

The Middle Room is not an island. In point of fact, we are a room, and there are other rooms around us. Sometimes we hear things through the walls. Sometimes we overhear the discourse of critics.

Thus it was that we were warned.

While we place little faith in professional reviewers, we have learned to seek out symbols and patterns in their chatter, much as soothsayers read tea leaves and entrails. There are times when negative reviews can conceal brilliant work. But we knew from the start this wasn't such a case. In situations where a brilliant movie is under-appreciated, there are numerous glowing reviews intermingled with the negative.

With Green Lantern, there was no such descent. The positive reviews were timid, apologetic; the negative were harsh. Yes, we knew what we were getting into.

Why then, did we go? We asked ourselves this question as we walked that long, carpeted path from the lobby to theater, that road all geeks must tread; that Green Mile. And the only answer we could find was this: because it was there.

We seldom find ourselves typing these next words, and it pains us to do so: the critics were right. This was a bad movie.

It wasn't so bad that it was without merit. The aliens of the Green Lantern Corps were adapted well, though they were given far less time than they deserved. Likewise, there were a few good fights; nothing spectacular, but certainly solid. And, for all the fan outcry at the casting, Ryan Reynolds did a fine job in his role. He felt like Hal Jordan, and the story told was a fairly direct adaptation of his origin.

On some level, the only thing wrong with Green Lantern was that it was a bad movie. And the primary cause of this seemed to be the direction. From the start, it felt as though the director wasn't taking the source material seriously. He approached it like children's entertainment. Scenes vacillated between camp and melodrama without adding up to anything substantial. Characters appeared for a sequence or two then disappeared, as if forgotten. There was no subtlety or artistry: at no point did the film trust in our intelligence. And, worst of all, Green Lantern was the one thing a superhero movie should never be: boring.

This wasn't as bad as the worst. This wasn't another Catwoman or even a Daredevil. What's hardest for us is the realization that Green Lantern got the characters, settings, and even the story right. But it did so with a disregard for pacing, structure, and emotional realism that wouldn't cut it on television.

If we tell you not to watch this, will you listen? Will it matter if we tell you this movie deserves a relative two stars against a scale from Catwoman to Superman? Or will you shrug, as we did, and go anyway?

Because it's the summer. Because it's the Green Lantern. And because, good or bad, they actually made this, and you need to see it to believe it.

If you can wait for Netflix, do so. Otherwise, you have our sympathies. We only hope that when Warner Bros. makes a sequel, they hire a director who can actually be bothered to make a good movie.

After two really good superhero films and a fantastic film about a panda martial-artist, The Middle Room has endured its first major disappointment of the season. We knew they couldn't all be great, but we were really hoping this wouldn't be the one to let us down.