Stripped

Full disclosure: I am in this movie. 

Stripped, which US viewers can get right now on iTunes*, is a documentary about newspaper comics, and was spearheaded by a man who loves and studies comics in a way that I never have. Oh, and he creates comics, too.

(*For Non-US viewers, and folks who'd rather not use iTunes: You can get the movie on April 2nd via VHX.tv (DRM-free), via DVDs at Topatoco (DRM-free), and via Google Play (U.S. only, not DRM-free.) I'll post direct links once links actually exist.)

It is also a bit of a choose-your-own-ending piece. The decline in newspaper circulation, the closure of papers, and a contraction in the reach of the syndicates is juxtaposed with the advent of the direct-to-the-consumer model employed by folks like me. The filmmakers did a great job of exploring and explaining both business models, and they interviewed syndicate editors, syndicated cartoonists, webcartoonists, webcomic business experts, and more.  

They also interviewed Bill Watterson. It is the only recorded interview he's ever done.

Stripped is far more than just exclusive interviews, though. There are some embedded shorts, including a pixel-pop, 8-bit explanation of the webcomic business model and a delightful music video. The segue animations are absolutely delicious, and not just because I can see Dave Kellet's inimitable hand in them. 

As with any review you read here, your mileage is going to vary a bit from mine. In this case I expect it to vary a lot. I'm far closer to the subject matter than 99.9% of my readers are, after all. Even so, I learned things. David Malki's analysis of the disruptive innovation wrought by photography at the turn of the 20th century was indisputably brilliant. And maybe that means you'll learn even more things than I did, and can enjoy the film even more. I don't know, but I think that would be pretty cool.

Regardless, I believe this film is going to stand for decades as the definitive documentary on this art form.

I love comics, and I loved this movie. And yes, I'd love for you to support it (I don't get a dime, mind you.) It's may not be my very-most-favorite, very-most-fun film of the year, but it did clear my Threshold of Awesome. And while it's not in wide release in theaters, it is available now on iTunes

Words and Works

At some point this summer my grand total of published words of fiction will crack 100,000. That's not including the words you find here in the pages of Schlock Mercenary, which I'm guesstimating number around 300,000. And of course I'm not playing the "a picture paints a thousand words" card because, in point of fact, I'm not painting. But hey, 100,000 is a cool number! Six figures! 

One of my goals for this year is to write 150,000 words. With the year 25% gone, I'd like to be able to announce that 37,500 of those words have been written, but I'm afraid I've only taken care of about 15,000 of them. I've done plenty of other things, though, and as I review my 2014 Project Management Spreadsheet I can see that I'm almost 1% ahead on the budgeted time, as balanced against the remaining projects.

This year's projects include, of course, 52 weeks of Schlock Mercenary. In that realm I also need to write the Bonus Story for Book 11, and create the 2015 calendar images. Oh, and we'll be putting the tenth book, Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, up for pre-order sometime in the next month or two. It's already off to the printer. There's also the Schlock Mercenary Role-Playing Game, which will require a bunch of encyclopedic writing on my part so that the source-book has some fresh source. And then there's merchandise to design, conventions to attend, and countless, tiny, Schlock-related tasks to be forbidden from falling through any of the cracks.

Most of the other projects are writing-related. I have about 100,000 words of fiction under contract (read: someone has already agreed to buy these words) and I'd love to wring another 40,000 words out of my schedule "on spec." And if that sounds a little vague, it's because I'm under one NDA and at least two commitments not to over-promise anything. My readers have become so accustomed to the clockwork perfection by which illustrated entertainments appear on this site it simply would not do to let them see me not delivering something. 

So... enough blogging. Time for delivering. I have stories to tell, and simply having a story is an entire world's worth of labor short of telling it.

Noah

I did not have high expectations for Noah, and those expectations remain unmet. I am sad.

I can see what Aronofsky was trying to do, and I can appreciate his reasoning for doing it. He created a very powerful character drama with neat special effects and particularly strong tension, and I would have loved to enjoy it, but it was kind of boring.

Boring is not good. It's the opposite of how I want to feel in a movie theater. If I hadn't been bored, I wouldn't have minded Aronofsky's artistic license and his fascinating re-interpretation of a familiar story, but since I was bored, well, all that stuff fell flat. 

On the plus side, Jennifer Connelly did an outstanding job. Her big scene was simply amazing. Emma Watson was brilliant as well, though she didn't have quite as much room to shine. Sadly, Russell Crowe wasn't given all that much to work with, and he was given most of the movie. The story centers on him, and on his personal voyage, but he was usually the least interesting thing happening on the screen (except for the one scene where he was in it twice, because that scene was delightful, but it was also quite short.) I'm not sure who was at fault here, though I suspect directorial vision is the culprit. Aronofsky wanted a depressed, mournful patriarch who has lost all hope in humanity, and that state, played correctly, isn't particularly engaging for the audience. Maybe in small doses, but a great many of the film's 138 minutes were spent on that.

Noah comes in at #9 for me this year, falling below the Threshold of Disappointment. If it had been shorter and tighter it might have been wonderful, but it was neither of those.

Granite Flats

This weekend I discovered Granite Flats. Or rather, it discovered me. 

The program is produced by BYU-TV, a local studio that has up until now been best-known for their Studio C sketch comedy series. Somebody on their marketing team got the impression that I'm "press" because I go to the movies a lot and blog about them, so they invited me and a plus-one (read: Sandra [also, read Sandra!]) to the Granite Flats Season 2 screening. 

Here's my counsel to you: watch the pilot for free at BYU-TV's website, and then plow through the remaining eight episodes. Do this before April 6th, in time for the premiere of Season 2. 

I'd never seen an episode of the show before Saturday's screening. It began with a 2-minute recap of Season 1, then some sneak-peeks, and then the first episode of Season 2, and while I could tell I was stepping into the middle of a story, I didn't mind at all, because it was wonderful. 

Granite Flats is a suspenseful drama, set in Colorado in 1963. It's inspired by actual Cold War events surrounding the CIA program "MK Ultra," and it follows an ensemble cast of soldiers, doctors, nurses, FBI agents, CIA agents, spies, and very clever children. The child actors were outstanding. Their scenes were some of my favorite parts of the program, and not because they were clearing a low bar: the whole cast was convincing, and I have to confess that I was stunned that this level of production was coming out of a studio here in Utah.

It's not that good programs can't be filmed here. Hollywood shoots in Utah all the time. But Granite Flats didn't just scoot up I-15 for the red rocks or the salt flats. They started here, shot the whole thing on location here, and created something outstanding.

I believe that the key reason this program is so good is that the writer and the director are not being second-guessed by a suit somewhere. They're following their vision, and the folks holding the purse-strings are trusting them to get it done right. I had the opportunity to meet with both men, John Plummer and Scott Swofford, after the screening, and I found their passion for this project downright infectious. They love what they're making, and that comes through on the screen. I got to meet a number of the actors as well, and they were equally enthusiastic.

And that's a thing I like to support, because I know what it feels like to be in love with a project.

I mentioned sneak-peeks earlier. Oh my! We got to see several minutes of footage from the middle of Season 2 featuring Christopher Lloyd as a junior-high English teacher, and Cary Elwes as a just-moved-in-next-door-can-I-borrow-some-sugar CIA agent. Both performances were among the best I've seen from these two. Idon't think I've ever been as creeped-out by Cary Elwes as I was during his neighborly invasion of the mad scientist's kitchen, and Christopher Lloyd's scene... take the unhinged energy of Doc Brown, season it with 30 years of experience, and now turn it loose on Shakespeare. 

As an aside, the screening was a little weird for me. I'm accustomed to introducing myself in professional settings with "I'm Howard Tayler. I'm a writer and an illustrator," or perhaps "I make comics." Here though I'd try to get away with  "I'm press!" and then folks would ask "oh, who do you write for?"

Umm, good question. I failed to come up with a glib answer. A few times I tried to explain it. "I make a comic, and I see a lot of movies, and I write about them in my blog under the comic, and because my readers are a self-selecting group who enjoy what I make, I've found that their tastes often align with hey why did your eyes just glaze over oh crap I've done it again."

Worse still, while "Schlock Mercenary" is a memorable name, in the TV industry those two words have actually been used as an actual insult. So, there's that. 

Fortunately, I don't need to make a living as a film and television critic, because I get to be a cartoonist. But I'm happy to keep telling you folks about things I like, even if my URL does make entertainment types a little nervous. 

Muppets Most Wanted

Straight to it: I had lots of fun, but Muppets Most Wanted failed to clear my Threshold of Awesome (the low-numbered, bold-faced films at the top of this list.) This is sad, because 2011's The Muppets not only cleared that threshold, it topped my list for that year.

What went wrong?

I'm not sure, really. The opening song in 2011's film set the tone perfectly, and the opening song this time around aimed at the same target -- let people know what they're in for, and crank the energy up. The song is called "We're Doing a Sequel," and it's clever, punchy, and predictably self-deprecatory, but something about it fell a little flat. Maybe hanging a lantern on how bad sequels often are... maybe that backfired, and called too much attention to the "sequel" feel?

I'll just say this: I found myself bored several times, tapping my foot and thinking "get on with this! I want MUPPET AWESOME!" and wondering when it was coming. And then something fun would happen, and I'd be back on board, but my desire for the awesome was never satisfied. And the final musical number, while cameotastic and pretty strong, had nothing on Amy Adams breaking the fourth wall and sending us home with "Mahna Mahna." 

That said, oh my goodness. Ricky Gervais was perfect, Ty Burrell played so well against Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobsen) that he almost became a Muppet himself. And Tina Fey? I think she may really be in love with Kermit the Frog. The Gulag musical numbers were excellent, which is to be expected when the Gulag is full of familiar-faced actors and professional dancers, and the inimitable Danny Trejo: "I'm a triple threat! I'm a singer, I'm a dancer, and I'm a murderer." (Sorry for the spoiler.)

"I'm Number One," "The Big House," "Interrogation Song," and "The Muppet Show" (the TV show theme done in Spanish) were my favorite musical numbers, but I got really tired of "I'll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)," and they sent us home with that one during the credits. It was clever, but the Constantine-as-Kermit accent muddied it up and the tune and arrangement weren't my kind of thing. Oh, and while I suspect I'm supposed to not like Miss Piggy's musical numbers, and that's the joke, that doesn't mean the joke won't wear thin really, really fast, even when you prop it up with an amazing musical cameo.

Don't get me wrong: I had fun, and as of this writing Muppets Most Wanted is #3 for me for the year, but even the long line of credit the Muppet franchise has with me just couldn't pull this above my Threshold of Awesome, where I so desperately wanted to put it.  

UPDATE, WITH SPOILERS

I think I figured it out. Throughout the 2011 movie we're told that The Muppet Show is an out-of-fashion has-been, but by the end of the movie there are huge crowds watching, and we're all having fun. This movie opens, and we're told that all those crowds were extras hired by the studio for the previous movie. Then as the Muppets tour Europe we learn that the sell-out crowds were hired to be there by our villains.

So, it's a movie about an entertainment troupe, and the only people who are interested in paying money to see them are us in the theater. There's no audience member who will hook our nostalgia for us. The first film gave us Walter, and then enthusiastic crowds. Muppets Most Wanted gave us... well, I suppose Tina Fey's character kind of works, but we don't identify with her. 

Inventory, then:

  • The Muppet Show of yesteryear was a variety show that included bits about doing a variety show. It was campy, and brilliant, and I loved it.
  • The Muppet Movie (1978) was a movie about the birth of the variety show in the face of ridiculous odds. Campy, brilliant.
  • Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island were retellings of familiar stories, as performed by Muppets, and while there was a little bit of fourth-wall breaking, they were more straightforward comedies. They were like super-extended sketches from the original variety show. Not my favorites, but they worked well. (Note: I didn't list Muppets Take Manhattan, The Great Muppet Caper, or Muppets from Space because I don't remember the plots.)
  • The Muppets (2011) was a movie about reviving that variety show, about getting the band back together. Original formula, with some fun twists, and plenty of nostalgia hooks. As I said above, I loved it.
  • Muppets Most Wanted, our most recent installment, tries to play to the original formula (variety show that breaks the fourth wall,) which means it's not just a sequel, it's the FOURTH TIME they've used this formula (at least!) Additionally, it doesn't spend much time on the variety show acts, and when it does, it follows up by telling me "nobody likes this." So even though I DID like it, the film forced me to pay extra attention to the parts I liked the least.

If there's a take-home for filmmakers (and for me, as a purveyor of entertainments on the media-wires) it's that self-deprecatory humor is risky. You risk convincing the audience that you're right.

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