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.

Paper and Pins and a Serving Suggestion

Schlock on a pin! We made 200 of these, and they're in the store now we don't have any left:

Sorry! We'll make more. Meanwhile, we're having a sale on original strip artwork too!

Original Schlock Mercenary strip artwork measures 14 inches wide by 8.5 inches high, and is on 80lb bond xerographic paper (regular printer paper.) Usually we charge $40 per row of artwork, but we're cutting that price in half for a little while. A daily strip will only set you back $20! Yes, a three-row Sunday will cost more than that. Math!

These original pages include all the dialog text--I laser-print the panel borders and the dialog before commiting art--and will also show faint pencil lines and not-so-faint blotches of white-out where I fixed things. There may be cases (less than 1%, really) where the dialog on the page doesn't match the dialog that appeared online. Usually changes were made to fix typos. Finally, the strips include a scrawl at the bottom showing the date upon which it was drawn and what my inked buffer was once that strip was completed. 

If you want an original strip, the easiest way to do it is to send the URL of the archive page of the strip in question to schlockmercenary@gmail.com, and Sandra can tell you whether that strip is still available. Then you make your purchase in the store, and email the order number to Sandra, and she'll make sure the right strips go out to the right people.

Back to the pins for a moment: if these are popular we will make more, and we will do pins of some of the other characters. Note, however, that the next run of these will be a little different (I'm going to adjust the placement of the vents on the plasgun) so that these first 200 pins will be recognizable as the Very First Schlock Pins Ever.

When I say "very first," I mean "pins with Schlock on them." We did Tagon's Toughs pins back in 2006, and those are almost gone. If we decide to make more pins with the company logo they'll be a lot different than the originals.

We are also planning on some convention exclusives Schlock pins for GenCon, Westercon, and SLC Fan-X. I'll post pictures of those as the events in question approach.

At an inch-and-a-half high, these pins may be a little large for today's narrower lapels. Of course, that needn't stop you from wearing them with even the most snappy of outfits. Here, for instance, is Schlock riding along with me to church...

The complementary colors of the pocket square and the pin? Happy accident. Very happy! Because fashion! 

Stripped: review coming on April 1st

It's getting to be that time of year when I clear my calendar each Friday so I can see a movie and write about it. Today, however, nothing is playing that I find interesting. Of course, last night I watched my Kickstarter Exclusive HD Reward Copy of Stripped, the documentary about the newspaper comics business, webcomics, and pretty much all things relevant to exactly what I do for a living.

I'm writing the review later, and I'm posting it on April 1st, which is when the film will be available on iTunes for all of you. I'm not sure when it will hit other outlets, but in support of the filmmakers (who are friends, yes, full disclosure, moving right along) I'll be picking it up then. 

Let me say this much, however: if you grew up reading newspaper comics, if you consume webcomics now, or if you take any measure of delight in sequential art (especially the kind with punchlines,) this film will stir you.

Also, I am in it! I'm not featured the way a few rather more influential creators are, but I got to say important things. Bold things, even. And my children who watched it with me looked up at me in new ways, not because I was in a movie, but because now they felt like they understood a little more just what it was that I do, and how rare it is for me to get to do it in this way.

So... April 1st there'll be a proper review, and not an April Fools gag. 

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