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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Big Changes for The Middle Room

Having previously failed to capture the interest of a new, young audience, The Middle Room is preparing to undergo a massive reconstruction. We'll be wrapping up all current features and series by the end of August, to be followed by a completely new, completely relaunched blog experience in September.

What can you expect from this new site? We're rebuilding the entire Middle Room from the ground up to offer a newer, edgier, sexier blog.

What does all that mean? Two words: chin straps. That's right, new, edgy chin straps. Sexy chin straps. And maybe some knee pads. Also, all toys displayed in our photos must, by editorial mandate, now wear pants. No exceptions*. We're relaunching all series at #1, providing a jumping-on point for blog-readers who are too intimidated to start reading an ongoing blog. For example, our review of Transformers 3 will be a review of Transformers 1. It's just that edgy.

To our longtime fans who have grown accustomed to the way things are, we have this to say: don't let the door hit you on the way out. That's right. We don't need you anymore. Why? Because we've got the future of blog distribution figured out, and here it is: same day digital distribution. That's right. Beginning in September, all blog posts on the Middle Room WILL BE AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL DEVICES ON THE SAME DAY THEY'RE POSTED HERE. Our analysts have assured us this will draw in a newer, younger, hipper audience.

In case that last part wasn't clear, we mean a newer hipper younger audience than the one we currently have (you).

So get out your chin straps, and get ready to party like it's 1994. Because, clearly, that's the future.

*A small number of pant-less exceptions may be made for edgy photographs, but they must be sufficiently edgy.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Re-Review: Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark

Several months ago, the Middle Room had an opportunity to view Julie Taymor's infamous musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Our review was less than glowing, and as a result the play was closed for three weeks so it could be completely overhauled with a new writer and director.

Despite reservations, we felt obligated to view the updated performance.

The new play no longer feels like Taymor's, nor does it feel like something new. Rather, it feels like an adaptation of the original, recreated by a civilization a thousand years in the future. That they seem to have access to the original soundtrack and cast is not necessarily a good thing.

The entire play feels muted, despite the deafening music and blinding lights. Almost every aspect was improved, but the experience is no better than before.

Elements and characters have been fixed across the board: Aunt May is now a likable character, as is Mary Jane. And the plot is at least 85% more existent than in the prior version. Connections exist between one scene and the next, and most characters now have something that could at least cynically be referred to as motivation - a huge step up.

But nothing feels right. They gutted the original production and strung the innards over the stage. For better or for worse (mainly the latter), the original felt like it was made with a vision. A skewed, twisted vision, certainly, but at least a sense of how the design fit the overall production.

But while the set and props remain, the production's been overhauled. The costumes and backdrops no longer fit the new show; nothing feels right. Everything was built around Taymor's spider-goddess, Arachne, who's been reduced to a minor character. While the original version failed miserably in its execution, the concept of a patron mythological being who turns into Spider-Man's nemesis when he tries to abandon his totem symbol had potential. As bad as some of those scenes were - and they got extremely bad - they weren't boring.

The reworked version, however, mostly comes off as bland, particularly in the tedious second act. Sure, that act used to be a train wreck, but at least train wrecks are exciting.

With Arachne reduced to giving pep talks, the play instead focuses on Green Goblin. His backstory is now fleshed out, which could have paid off if not for the lingering elements from the play's predecessor. While the character's interactions between musical numbers are improved, they don't exactly mesh with the songs, which were clearly written to serve an entirely different arc.

The Sinister Six, no doubt in an attempt at streamlining, have been "re-imagined" as creations of the Goblin's. More specifically, they're products of his continued genetic experiments splicing human and animal DNA.

Keep in mind, Carnage is among those supposed experiments. What, exactly, Carnage is supposed to have been spliced with is never made clear. Nor is Swiss Miss (one of Taymor's creations) explained. Perhaps the Green Goblin spliced her DNA with that of a food processor.

Also baffling is the reworked death of Uncle Ben. Fans were angry at his unconventional death in the last version, when he was hit by Flash Thompson's stolen car after Peter watched the theft occur. Likely in an attempt to placate fans, they've reverted to something ostensibly closer to the original. Ostensibly.

After arguing with his uncle, Peter competes in a wrestling match, which he easily wins. He's immediately paid the promised money, and walks home feeling pleased with himself. On his way home, his uncle is shot by a car jacker.

Absent is any connection between Peter and Ben's murderer. Without it, Peter is ultimately innocent - the crime really isn't his fault. The play ignores this, of course, and he descends into a pit of angst until Arachne sings a song about how he can wear the red blood of the innocent and the blue of the night's grief (or something).

The origin of the costume is another carryover from Taymor's version. Perhaps she failed to notice that Spider-man's colors also mirror the American flag, as well as Superman's, who Parker was largely a parody of when first created.

Or maybe they just figured that an angst-ridden song about red blood and blue sorrow would play better to a generation obsessed with Twilight.

At any rate, the new version of Turn Off the Dark is probably a better play, but there's far less reason to see it. The original incarnation was a glorious failure: this is just the conventional sort.

They set out to fix Turn Off the Dark, and after a complicated operation at the vet's office, the play has indeed been fixed. As such, it will no longer hump your leg, which is certainly a plus. However, now it just sits limply in the corner, a musical devoid of the manic energy that once infused it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

It took Matthew Vaughn four tries, but he's finally directed a movie The Middle Room can get behind. His first film, Layer Cake, was all style, no substance, and the end result - while not exactly bad - left us disappointed. He followed this up with Stardust, which we rank number 3 on our list of most disappointing adaptations of all time, in this or any parallel universe (full list forthcoming). Again, the style was there, but the pacing and story fell flat (as did everything else in Stardust: seriously, that movie sucks).

Despite this, we were extremely excited about his third film, Kick-Ass, which looked incredible from its previews. The movie itself, however, was once more lacking any real substance. There were plenty of brilliant scenes, but they never came together into a satisfying whole.

We weren't sure what to expect from X-Men: First Class. It turns out that the movie is, well, all style with little real substance; a bunch of interesting scenes strung together without regard to flow by a director who clearly doesn't know the first thing about pacing.

But that's all right. Because the style was THAT GOOD. Sure, there are a few bad scenes. Sure, the story lacks nuance. But believe us when we assure you that this movie has style. The first of this summer's two superhero period pieces, First Class unfolds in the 1960's and offers an origin for Professor X and Magneto. And, setting aside all the missed opportunities around minor characters, the origin created hits all the right notes.

There are the usual missed opportunities around minor characters, and we still don't have a real fight scene between two teams: everyone just pairs off to battle their opposite. But that's okay. Because Magneto starts this movie hunting down and executing Nazis, and he only gets more likable as the film progresses. Reviewers are tossing around comparisons with James Bond, and the parallels are definitely evident.

First Class doesn't get everything right, and it falls short of X-Men 2. To say it's better than X-Men 3 and Wolverine would be a cynical statement: after all, those were abject failures. A more telling observation is that it's far superior to the first X-Men movie, and that it's more than sufficient to get this flailing series back on track.

Matthew Vaughn's weaknesses are still evident here, but he's also given room to demonstrate his strengths. Sure, if X-Men: First Class had any less style, it wouldn't be worth seeing. Fortunately, it's saturated in style, and is absolutely worth your time and money.

Against the relative five stars of X-Men 2, we respectfully award First Class a relative four.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

About September

By now, you've already heard the news. It's seeped into every part of internet, even the sordid and dark corners, and everyone on Earth is aware what's happening.

Assuming they're geeks. If you're not a geek, you have no idea what we're talking about.

So we'll provide a recap. In order to appeal to a new generation, DC Comics is rebooting all lines and issues. Every comic published is reverting to #1, with de-aged characters, updated origins, and new costumes designed by the always inconsistent Jim Lee, and DC is shifting to offer same-day digital releases of all its books. So if you have an iPad, you can skip the comic stores altogether.

As a whole, geeks are less than thrilled. And who can blame them? The continuity they've been following is about to dissipate in a puff of marketing.

On the other hand, DC editorial has been watching their sales decline, and it's hard to blame them for taking note of the fact that more people are watching Young Justice than are actually buying DC Comics*.

DC believes their heroes have gotten too old. Given that Superman's been wandering around in a midlife crisis and Batman's been hanging out with four generations of Robins (including his whiny, obnoxious son, Damian ), they may have a point. There's a sense in which the DC Universe as it is feels like it's ready to wrap up.

Unfortunately, it'll never be given such an opportunity. The reboot, planned in a few short months, isn't going to offer anything a chance to conclude. The DC Universe is going out with a whimper.

But that's not why we've called you here. The DCU resetting is the final step. It began with Marvel being bought by Disney, and it ends in September.

What ends? Why, the Bronze Age, of course. When DC Comics renumbers their books and retcons their entire history, so ends the Third Age of comic books.

We welcome you then to the Fourth Age: the Silicon Age of Comics.

*Statistics based entirely on hearsay and supposition: we have no evidence to back this claim up, but it sounds right, so what the hell?