Saturday, May 28, 2011

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda does not open a year after the end of part one with Po having forgotten his training and reverting to his prior state. Nor does he spend the entire movie re-ingratiating himself with Master Shifu, who has in turn not reverted to his state at the beginning of part one. The Furious Five have neither forgotten what Po accomplished in the first film, nor has their affection for Po vanished inexplicably between films.

We have broached the subject of what Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't, because we feel it better sheds light on what it is. Ultimately, there was absolutely no guarantee that the inverse would not have been true. When a movie - particularly an animated one - is successful, a conventional approach to the sequel is to change a few small elements then repeat the same basic format with the same character arc.

Not this time.

Instead, Kung Fu Panda opens with Po more or less as we left him: still a tad happy-go-lucky, but nevertheless a total badass who's won a great deal of respect. Sure, he still has a soft spot for food, but it no longer drives his every action. No, he spends most of Kung Fu Panda 2 on a quest to learn about his past and make peace with who he is.

Did we mention that this isn't a comedy? This is, first and foremost, an action movie, and it is a damned good action movie. Sure, there are jokes, but they're neither the driving force nor the point of the film. There's at least as much drama as there is comedy, and the emotional beats hit their mark.

This is the second best CG action movie ever made, behind The Incredibles. This is a movie of badasses fighting armies. We were teased with The Furious Five in the first movie: this time, we see them them fully unleashed. Remember that bridge fight in part one? Remember the Five coordinating their movements into an elaborate assault that integrated their natural forms and abilities into a cohesive force? There are easily a half dozen fights like that in the movie, maybe more.

And then there's Tigress, the character who showed the most promise, but was never really given a chance to shine in part one. Our largest fear going into Kung Fu Panda 2 was that they would de-power her to keep her from overshadowing Po. And, like every other misstep that could have been made here, they didn't. Tigress is awesome. Not just run-of-the-mill awesome, either: she's breaking-down-doors, taking-hits-without-flinching, plucking-flaming-arrows-out-of-the-goddamn-air awesome.

And we haven't even mentioned the villain, Shen. Or, more accurately, the undisputed SINGLE BEST VILLAIN TO APPEAR IN ANY CG MOVIE. Pixar's got a lot going for them, but they've never had a bad guy like Shen.

He's a killer - for real this time - and everything about him has an edge. He's fast, precise, and more importantly intelligent. He's ruthless, direct, and driven. The first movie's villain was a bully: Shen's a philosopher warlord. He's Machiavellian and focused. This is a guy who's committed unforgivable atrocities, but he's complex enough to retain a shred of our sympathy. And, because of that, he ultimately feels believable.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a major achievement. This is a huge improvement over the first, which was already an extremely enjoyable film in its own right. On a five star scale with Incredibles holding the crown, Kung Fu Panda 2 deserves four and a half.

Unless Cars 2 greatly exceeds our expectations, we suspect we've just seen the best CG movie of the summer.

Capes, Animated

We thought the time had come to gather and discuss the state of animated televised superheroes, a subject longtime readers know is close to our hearts.

By our count, there are four major animated shows currently running which focus on DC or Marvel characters, not counting Japanese re-imaginings.

We begin with an old staple, Batman: Brave and the Bold. In accordance with our agreed upon penance, we are obligated to remind our readers that, prior to its release, we'd expect this show to rank among the worst portrayals of Batman ever shown on TV. Of course, it's now clear this couldn't be farther from the truth.

Batman: Brave and the Bold is an intriguing and entertaining show, which - at times - approaches the brilliance of Batman: The Animated Series (though it's yet to actually reach that level, but then, what has?).

The series has evolved over time, playing with different tones and concepts. While remaining an all-ages show on the surface, it's achieved some jaw-dropping subversive turns. This season, an entire episode was dedicated to the "Super-dickery"website, while the sexual innuendo snuck into Gail Simone's Birds of Prey episode is unbelievable. Add in the "classic" Scooby Doo/Weird Al/Batman Crossover, and you've got an all around brilliant series.

On top of everything else, we're continuously impressed by the show's willingness to kill the occasional hero and touch on the consequences. For a show ostensibly aimed at young children, a shocking number of good guys make the ultimate sacrifice.

Next, we'd like to say a few words about Marvel's ongoing "Superhero Squad Show." Two words, in fact: it sucks.

To be fair, we've only seen a few episodes, and those were back in season 1. But those episodes were unfunny, uninteresting, and offensive. The fact this show remains on the air while Spectacular Spider-Man and Wolverine and the X-Men are gone is an outright tragedy.

Moving on, we come to the first of the two new additions: Young Justice. Produced by Greg Wiseman, who previously worked on the aforementioned Spectacular Spider-Man, as well as the legendary Gargoyles.

While Young Justice is a solid program, it's also a tad disappointing. The series accomplishes what it sets out to do well enough, but its goals feel off target. The show is ultimately using its characters to tell spy stories, rather than superhero ones, and the result seems off. It tries too hard to come off as gritty and realistic, and winds up losing the fun and adventure that traditionally make the Teen Titans so interesting.

To the series's credit, its portrayal of the Justice League is spot on, including some innovative twists on Batman and Superman which fit the characters' histories perfectly. On top of that, there have been some great action sequences: this is certainly well put together, and it has a lot of potential. We just hope the producers back off the tone and start treating their characters more like the Teen Titans and less like agents from the Impossible Missions Force.

Finally, we move on to Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Like Batman: Brave and the Bold, we'd originally approached this with trepidation. Something about the previews looked off to us. However, when we actually watched the show, we were pleasantly surprised. No, "surprised" isn't the word: we were floored.

Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes may be the most ambitious superhero cartoon series since JLU, and at times it's almost as good. Working off of an amalgamation of five decades of Marvel Comics, as well as the recent films, the show is an exciting and intriguing experience. The characters all feel spot-on, with Wasp and Hawkeye stealing the show.

Our only criticism lies with the pacing. If anything, the show has begun moving too fast, burning through major plot arcs and galactic-level threats without enough space between.

Nevertheless, we find ourselves eagerly anticipating the next season. While Brave and the Bold and Young Justice are certainly great shows, Avengers stands out as the best animated superhero show currently on television.

Except for WordGirl, of course.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Review: End of the World - May 21, 2011

We in the Middle Room have a deep seated appreciation of a good apocalypse. We reminisce fondly about DC's legendary Crisis on Infinite Earths, and have a deeply held admiration of zombie uprisings, vampiric plagues, and temporal paradoxes. If we could be so bold, we consider ourselves connoisseurs of the end of days.

Which is why we found ourselves more than a little disappointed in Harold Camping's recent offering, the now infamous "May 21st Rapture and World-Quake."

Before progressing further, be warned that we will need to discuss the events of last weekend in some detail in order to explain our reaction. In short, spoilers lie ahead: those who have Tivoed the weekend's news to watch later or haven't visited in several days may wish to refrain from reading further.

It wasn't that the 21st was bad, per se, merely that it was a victim of raised expectations owing to its own marketing campaign. Ultimately, the day played out like most doomsdays, raptures, and end times before it, with a few twists that - under slightly better direction - might have made this apocalypse stand out. As it stands, May 21, 2011 was disappointing, yet another missed opportunity.

We shouldn't have been surprised, seeing as Camping's first apocalypse, released in 1994, was utterly forgettable and uninspired. However, as we approached the May version, the marketing campaign and teasers gave us hope that this one might be different. Production values seemed unprecedented: we haven't seen a doomsday with this kind of budget since the infamous Y2K fiasco.

But, when the time came, Camping's sequel was as dull as the original. Don't get us wrong: we see what they were attempting to convey. A Rapture without a single ascension, concluding with the bewildered expressions on the faces of the faithful; a fatalistic statement on the utter irredeemable nature of mankind and the hopelessness of the future. Yes, yes; very nihilistic, very clever. Except we've seen it all before. This was precisely how 1994 ended. And, for that matter, every other religious, mythological, and secular doomsday scenario that's played out on the news before and since.

Sure, there's the twist ending everyone's talking about: the non-apocalypse without the usual mass suicide and all that. Which is fine - no one needs that kind of a downer, anyway. Though seeing thousands of Camping's followers broke and distraught isn't too exactly a happy ending, either.

Ultimately, we feel cheated. It's one thing to release something like this in September, but this is May, when we expect more from our entertainment than Camping was able to deliver. He's putting a droll exploration of human stupidity against the excitement of movies like Thor? Come on, where were the effects? Where's the spectacle? Drama alone isn't going to cut it in a summer when Transformers 3 is getting released.

On a scale of one to five, where five stars reflects doomsdays like the Near-Apocalypse of '09, we can only award Camping's May 21st two stars.

It wasn't so much that it was bad... it just didn't deliver anything worthwhile or new. Sure, the twist was better than the alternative, but Camping failed to conceal his hand - we saw the Shyamalan-like ending coming a mile away. This isn't the worst apocalypse we've ever seen, but we still strongly advise our readers to save their money and wait for the DVD.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Future Markets 2011

April showers have already brought May flowers, which have in turn brought allergies. Yes, in the grand scope of things, the showers were preferable. However, the blight of flowers brings summer movies. We're not entirely sure why this line of causation exists, but such is the way of things.

Summer movies bring a respite from the coming heat, though they carry a hefty price tag. As such, no one can see them all. Indeed, who wants to?

For years now, The Middle Room has consulted various tools of augury in an attempt to predict which movies would be worth seeing. Our results were less than satisfactory, and we've discarded such tools in order to make room for more toys.

This year, we'll focus on the fulcrum; the point on which our decision to see the movie hinges. We will discuss the piece of information we're waiting on before making up our mind, sort of a Schrodinger's Cat of film, but with 30% fewer quantum entanglements and 100% fewer dead cats.

Here, then, in one fell swoop, is every film we're considering:

May 6
While we were somewhat disappointed by choices made in the movie, it clearly continued Marvel's unbroken record of solid superhero flicks.
What We're Waiting For: Nothing: we already saw it. There was virtually no chance we were ever going to skip this or any Avengers tie in.

May 13
This looks like something we wish were good but fairly obviously isn't. Current Tomatometer stands around 20%, and we've yet to see any indication this will improve.
What We're Waiting For: Strong word of mouth could pique our interest. At this point, it seems extremely unlikely we'll bother, however.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
May 20
The original film stands as a testament to what light summer fare can be. Indeed, it's one of the best adventure movies ever made. Unfortunately, its sequels - which weren't actually bad, per se - just didn't live up to the first. While a film focusing on Sparrow sounds like a good idea at first, it strikes us as potentially pandering.
What We're Waiting For: Despite our reservations, we'll almost certainly go see this. A plummeting Tomatometer score could give us pause (if, say, the film drops below 40% without being offset by good word-of-mouth). However, the Pirates franchise maintains enough goodwill from The Middle Room to deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Kung Fu Panda 2
May 26
Kung Fu Panda is a solid movie with two major flaws: it was far too short and it failed to delve into its world and supporting characters in the depth needed. The very existence of a sequel could make these criticisms meaningless. On top of that, the trailer looks extremely promising.
What We're Waiting For: A Tomatometer score and reviews. Negative feedback (say, below 50% and/or word the movie lacks a sufficient quantity of kung fu fights) could easy convince us to skip this. We consider this scenario unlikely: as stated above, the trailers give us very little to worry about.

The Tree of Life
May 27
This is the movie to pay attention to, we've been told. No one seems to know what it's about, but the director has supposedly made several intriguing movies we haven't actually seen.
What We're Waiting For: Tomatometer, reviews, word-of-mouth, and the weather. If this movie sounds like it lives up to its vague hype, then perhaps we'll see it in theaters. Assuming, of course, the weather isn't great. Otherwise, perhaps we'll wait for DVD. Sorry: summer's the time for action and spectacle, and, while there do seem to be some dinosaurs in the film, we've yet to see verification of even a single superhero.

X-Men: First Class
June 3
Tough one. The trailers certainly look good, and early word of mouth is strong. However, Fox has repeatedly shown a profound talent for destroying this franchise, and we've yet to be truly impressed with a single film made by Matthew Vaughn. Kick-Ass may have had some brilliant scenes, but the whole was far less than the sum of its parts. And Stardust remains, in our humble opinion, one of the worst big-budget adaptations ever made. The fact that trailers for both of those movies had us extremely excited has us weary, as well.
What We're Waiting For: It's unlikely we'll skip First Class, but not impossible. A Tomatometer south of 40% would likely cost the film our money. We're actually not putting much stake in word-of-mouth this time: we seem to be in the minority in our assessment of Vaughn's work.

Super 8
June 8
Like Cloverfield before it, very little information about the Abrams/Spielberg collaboration has been made public. We sincerely hope this is the only parallel we need to draw to Cloverfield, which despite some decent creature work, was tedious to sit through.
What We're Waiting For: A Tomatometer above 80%, along with some promising buzz, would pique our interest. We'd also like to know a little more about this movie, so we can decide whether it's something we're interested in seeing. We're funny that way.

The Troll Hunter
June 8
This looks extremely interesting. The trailers have held our attention for a long time.
What We're Waiting For: Well, one of two things really. We either need the movie to open at a theater worth going to (i.e.: not the over-priced art house theater with the tiny screens), or we need this to show up on DVD. This is definitely a movie we'd like to see. Time will tell how we end up viewing it, however.

The Green Lantern
June 17
While the early trailers inflicted no small amount of pain on geeks of the world, later versions have subsequently improved our outlook. In fact, the footage we've seen looks downright fantastic, in spite of some questionable costume design choices.
What We're Waiting For: At this point, we're mainly waiting for the movie to open. It would take extremely negative reviews and word-of-mouth to make us even consider skipping this.

Cars 2
June 24
Yes, the first Cars is among the worst Pixar movies made to date. However, there are far worse classifications to be in than "worst Pixar movie." In fact, we actually enjoyed Cars quite a bit, despite its many flaws. On top of that, the genre switch from racing to spy doesn't hurt, either.
What We're Waiting For: While there are obviously other things we'd rather Pixar was devoting their attention to instead of a Cars sequel, as a rule we give every Pixar movie the benefit of the doubt. There may come a day when the studio lets us down and we start exercising discretion about which of their movies to see in the theater... but that hasn't happened yet.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
July 1
The first Transformers movie was far from perfect, but it managed to convey the fun of the original cartoons. On top of that, the simple casting of Peter Cullen to reprise his role as Optimus Prime forgave a lot of design mishaps. Then... we saw Transformers 2.
What We're Waiting For: Verification there's some substance. It wouldn't actually take a lot: we don't need Transformers 3 to be brilliant or groundbreaking. We just need it to be not awful. We let the second movie slide on visuals alone, and we accepted it (after all, the visuals were awfully pretty). But now we've seen that. We've seen Prime spin around and kill a bunch of Decepticons. That won't be enough a third time, and if the reviews don't reflect a return to at least the level of the first, we will skip this one.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II
July 15
This is part two or eight, depending on your count, of the Harry Potter series. While the movies haven't felt great in a while, they've remained consistently enjoyable. We've previously compared the experience to a really good television show, and we believe the comparison holds.
What We're Waiting For: Come on. We've seen the other seven; we'll see this one, as well. Just not opening day. Why? Because it's opening against....

Winnie the Pooh
July 15
They hired one of the original animators to adapt several of the unadapted Pooh stories from A.A. Milne's books in the same 2D animation that was used in the Disney Classic.
What We're Waiting For: We'll see you there or you can go to Hell. Winnie the Pooh rocks, and this is precisely the way to make another movie - exactly like the first.

Captain America: The First Avenger
July 22
The second Marvel-produced Avengers-tie-in of the year. In our opinion, Marvel has yet to drop the ball, and this period piece - set in World War II - is unlikely to change course.
What We're Waiting For: It's more or less impossible for this movie to get reviews so bad we'll skip it. We're extremely excited to see this.

Cowboys and Aliens
July 29
Jon Favreau made Iron Man into a good movie, but that's not saying much. Any decent director could have made a decent Iron Man with Downey Jr. in the role. But how many could have made Zathura into an intriguing and intelligent SF flick? How many could have made Elf into one of the best Christmas movies ever made?
What We're Waiting For: We're waiting for Favreau to make a bad movie. Until then, we expect we'll need to check out his western/alien invasion flick. Because it looks awesome.

The Smurfs
July 29
Well, it's an adaptation of an 80's cartoon, so we should at least discuss it.
What We're Waiting For: Hell to freeze over*.
*Disclaimer: should Hell freeze over, no one associated with The Middle Room makes any sort of promise to see this movie. Not even then.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
August 5
We have no idea what to expect from this. Planet of the Apes isn't exactly a property that we feel needs to be constantly revisited: honestly, we'd be just as happy if it died out. However, as long as it is around... well... we do like intelligent monkeys. And, should those smart apes rise up and start a revolution, all the better.
What We're Waiting For: Reviews. A Tomatometer score north of 80% would be a good way to at least get our attention.

Conan the Barbarian
August 19
We're big fans of both Howard's stories and Milius's movie, and we're intrigued by the idea of seeing Conan attempted using today's technology and budgets. Unfortunately, the footage we've seen so far has rode a line dangerously close to made-for-TV, at least as far as the acting is concerned. Conan may be barbaric, but there's a surprising amount of depth in the original stories.
What We're Waiting For: A preview that shows the movie could be worth seeing. Oh, we'll most likely see it regardless, but we'll feel better about the whole thing if there's some indication that someone put some effort into this.

Fright Night
August 19
We don't really know what to think of this. The original has some things going for it, but it's hard to understand why a remake is called for.
What We're Waiting For: Really positive reviews. If this tops 80%, we might try to catch it in theater. Otherwise, we'll either wait for the DVD or skip it entirely.

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World
August 19
Are we the only ones deeply disturbed by the subtitle of this movie? The phrase, "All the Time in the World," has some history in the spy genre. We always expected to see it used for a Bond movie (it was, after all, the mirror to Bond's family motto, "The World is Not Enough" - read or watch "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" if you have no idea what we're talking about). Using it with Spy Kids is either a horrible joke or a brilliant subversive reference.
What We're Waiting For: Reviews, as usual. There's actually a soft spot in our hearts for the franchise, though we doubt it's enough to get us all the way to the theater, even if the reviews are positive (which is far from a given).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

Thor is a better movie than it is a superhero movie. It's still a fine superhero movie, but it stops short of being amazing or astonishing.

In fact, there's a sense in which Thor goes out of its way not to astonish. It expends a great deal of thought and effort towards grounding its ideas and setting. This is ultimately a movie whose primary function is to fold Thor into the world established in Iron Man. And, to its credit, it accomplishes this goal gloriously. It manages to adapt a huge swath of Lee and Kirby's Asgard. The Warriors Three, Heimdall, and Sif are all featured - quite prominently, in fact - in the film.

But it always feels as though these things are being folded into the existing world of Tony Stark, into a world of science and reason. In comics, Thor exists by rules written for Thor, and the greater shared Universe allows the various laws of physics and logic to clash. While we loved the crossovers and cameos, these should have felt grounded in the logic of Thor's world for his movie.

The character work here was very strong. Branagh feels right at home playing with Norse gods, and the dialogue works extremely well. The script drops the absurdity of the "thee's", "thou's", and "verily's", while the actors convey the sense these terms were always meant to impart. Clearly, a great deal of thought and attention to detail went into this, and it shows.

And yet, it's difficult not to feel a sense of disappointment. It was a good movie, but Thor spent a greater portion of the film powerless than Kal-El did in Superman II. We only caught a glimpse of Thor as a superhero: a single moment towards the end.

Despite the fact that Thor's origin is no more complex, the movie was hindered by the same issues that plague all origin movies: too much time spent grounding the magic and majesty they should be celebrating.

Thor comes close to Iron Man, but falls a bit short. If Iron Man's a four star film, than Thor is three and three-fourths. However, we're going to bump that to four. Why? Because of what comes after the credits. You thought the teaser at the end of Iron Man was good?

Friday, May 6, 2011

May 21

The Middle Room felt it important to clarify misconceptions centered around the many billboards, posters, and RV's across America.

We have analyzed a number of Marvel comic books, and - based on indisputable evidence - have determined that the world will indeed come to an end on May 21, 2011.

Because, on that day, Galactus will arrive, and his hunger shall compel him to devour the life-energy in the Earth.

It is important to note that Galactus would never eat the Earth without warning us first. To that end, his herald, the Silver Surfer, will arrive. You will know him by his surfboard. It will be silver.

There will also be images seen in the sky.

On an unrelated note, enjoy Free Comic Book Day tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Free Comic Day

In early May, first weekend's right,
Free comics are a welcome sight.
Let those who barter books for pay,
Instead charge nothing: FREE COMIC DAY!

Just a friendly reminder to geeks: this Saturday, comic stores all over the country will give you comics. For free. Truly, it is the greatest day of all the year.