May 24, 2012:
May 21, 2012:
May 5, 2012:
May 24, 2012:
I had to be out of the house for a few hours yesterday, and I found myself at our classiest local multiplex, watching The Battle of the Visual Effects Houses—I'm sorry, I mean The Avengers—in the company of exactly two other moviegoers. After watching this very expensive, very loud, very long, and ultimately very boring spectacle, I wondered how best to express my opinion of it. The answer was obvious: make another contribution to the Indiegogo funding of Michael Sporn's Poe. My additional $50 would do no more than buy a morning's coffee for one of the screen-credited assistants to The Avengers' stars, but Michael can put it to productive use. As of this writing, funding is only $1,300 short of the $13,000 goal. What a pittance, compared with the waste I saw on the screen yesterday.
I was made most aware of just how noisy and empty The Avengers is at precisely those moments when it tries to be a little more than noisy and empty. As when Iron Man and Captain America are chewing on each other, and especially when the No. 2 man to Nick Fury is murdered by the villain, Loki. I could tell that we in the audience were supposed to feel something when this man—what was his name? Colson? Carlson? Carbuncle?—was skewered, but I felt only mild disappointment that he had not turned out to be a mole in the service of the bad guys. It's hard to feel anything when what you're watching is so obviously a precision-tooled industrial product that can be called a "movie" only because a comparably compact and far more accurate descriptive noun is considered rude in polite company.
The Incredibles is still the best superhero movie ever made, partly because it's a superhero movie that's not really about superheroes, but about an exceptionally interesting family. I've seen it five or six times and I've yet to grow tired of it. I can't imagine ever saying anything of the sort about The Avengers or, for that matter, any of the other superhero movies that have spilled onto the screen in recent years. But I look forward to saying something similar about Michael Sporn's Poe.
A May 28, 2012 update: Occasionally the good guys do win: Michael Sporn's fund-raising effort was successful. For his report, click on this link.
From Michael Grabowski: Despite your review of The Avengers, Marvel Studios still gets to include your ticket in its box office tally, which is all that matters. They certainly won't take your comments into consideration when developing their next film, but every $10 taken from a viewer, whether disgruntled or thrilled, just underwrites that next movie. How unfortunate that your local plex wasn't multi enough to offer a better choice.
MB replies: I went to a bargain matinee and paid only $7.25 to see the "flat" version, so at least I didn't support Marvel/Disney any more than necessary.
From Marshall Turner: While I won't argue that The Avengers isn't "very loud, very long," it's not entirely boring. Specifically, the best scenes in the film are those that most obviously bear director Joss Whedon's trademark sense of humor, which comes sporadically between stretches of exposition and spectacle. That and the acting services of Robert Downey, Jr., and Mark Ruffalo don't save the movie, per se, but they kept me entertained well enough that I didn't fall asleep. (You're right, though: even these moments highlight just how "noisy and empty" the rest of the film is.)
So I did enjoy The Avengers, but I'm probably one of the only kids my age who didn't love it. Maybe it's because I'm not as well acquainted with superheroes and what's "awesome" that everyone else is. My loss? Well, if this is what they consider the epitome of cinema, then I'd rather be left out of the loop.
P.S. I'd argue that Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero movie, with The Incredibles not far behind.
MB replies: To me, the bits of humor in The Avengers seemed pasted on, just like the attempts to make the audience feel for the characters. I don't think Whedon succeeded at all in modifying the essential nature of The Avengers, which is never more than a brute mechanical spectacle. I enjoy Robert Downey, Jr., but I think he's probably one of those actors who seems better than he really is because he appears so often in movies that aren't very good.
[Posted May 28, 2012]
From Ricardo Cantoral: I think the only way one could dismiss The Avengers as just a "brute mechanical spectacle" is if you have a low regard for the previous films which balanced character development, action, and drama; at least, the ones that were good unlike Iron Man 2 and Thor. However, that is not say that Avengers is just a machine film; There was plenty of conflict amongst the heroes while they were on board SHIELD's flying aircraft carrier and Loki's clever manipulation of The Hulk was well executed. Sure, the humor felt forced at times but it wasn't excessive like Iron Man 2. Besides, I'd rather see lighthearted spectacles rather than the brooding, crime dramas Christopher Nolan has been making featuring a character under the very misleading name of Batman.
MB replies: I think all superheroes—and thus all superhero comic books and movies—are inherently frivolous. Whether they're frivolous in an enjoyable way, or simply shallow and childish, is up to the people writing and drawing the comic books or making the movies. Shallow and childish wins almost all the time, with the occasional remarkable exception like Bird's Incredibles.
[Posted June 4, 2012]
From Ricardo Cantoral: Superheroes are ultimately about spectacle but that doesn't mean they are all frivolous. The Fleischer Superman shorts were fun and frivolous but not the 1978 film by Richard Donner. That was about a man carrying an incredible burden of responsibility because of the powers he had. Also, I suggest reading Steven Englehart's Batman comics published in the 1970's, which had Batman dealing with fighting crime and having a sex life.
MB replies: I remember thoroughly enjoying the first half of Donner's Superman and feeling let down by the second half. That has been the pattern for me when I've seen other superhero movies: there's some fun to be had in watching the heroes acquire their powers, and much less fun in watching them use those powers in what is supposed to be the real world. The more the heroes bump up against reality, the more obvious the fundamental absurdity of the conception. Lately, in comic books and movies of The Dark Knight and Watchmen kind, the creators have tried to drown the absurdity in an ocean of blood; the seriousness of their heroes and their stories is, they insist, confirmed by the extreme violence.That works for a great many people, obviously, but not for me.
I'm sure I read some of the Englehart comics when they first appeared, and I probably still have some of them, but they haven't lodged in my memory.
[Posted June 6, 2012]
From Ricardo Cantoral: Such seriousness fails in my eyes as well. Christopher Nolan's Batman is dragged into the sewers of the mundane for no other purpose then trying to be taken "seriously." He's not a myth, a symbol, or a hero; He's just an angry guy in a very ugly suit. As for your comment about Superman 1978, when you mean the second half I assume you mean when Clark Kent moves to Metropolis. Yes, it's the real world but it's a not harsh reality. I hope with the success of these Marvel films, Warners will take a hint and start trying to duplicate the nature of those films.
MB replies: Actually, it was the entry of Lex Luthor into the film—that is, its descent into good guy-bad guy comic-book ordinariness—that was the letdown for me, not Clark Kent's move to Metropolis. I can't recall if Luthor (Gene Hackman) appears halfway into the film, or earlier or later than that, but either way, he's the herald of disappointment. The next time I watch Superman, if I ever do, I hope I remember to turn it off after Superman's rescue of Lois when she falls from the helicopter, for me the high point of the film.
[Posted June 7, 2012]
From Ricardo Cantoral: Ah, Lex Luthor. He appears rather late in the film. I agree that Luthor's antagonism towards Superman rather undermines the film intent to avoid conventional comic book territory . What would have been perfect is if Superman was suppose to be the four-hour epic Richard Donner wanted; Superman I and II was originally a whole film. I think you could have kept Luthor in there. Lex's team up with Zod and his cohorts was sensible but just get rid of Luthor's goofy real estate plot and make him a legitimate business man who was jealous of Superman's popularity like in the comics; Coupled with Superman's decision to have a normal life with Lois Lane, this could be chalked up to those great films that never happened. However regardless of the flaws, I think Superman holds up as the great comic book movie; I even enjoyed the delightfully campy Gene Hackman Luthor who seems himself as a modern day Moriarty.
[Posted June 8, 2012]
May 21, 2012:
The deadline is just five days away for Indiegogo funding of Michael Sporn's Poe. The target amount is $13,000, and as of this writing contributions are approaching $10,000. Michael will get most of the money regardless, but he'll get a higher percentage—that is, pay a smaller commission to Indiegogo—if contributions match or exceed the goal. As for what the money will pay for, Michael explains on the Indiegogo page for Poe: "We hope to turn the many segments started into completed animation to be able to thrust the feature film, Poe, into complete production. The Indiegogo money will do that for us and help satisfy the needs of the possible distributors and financiers who are already interested."
I've expressed my discomfort with funding mechanisms of this kind, but I have of course contributed ($50 so far, anonymously, for reasons I can't now remember), and you should, too, in an amount that can be as small as $15.
From Patrick Garabedian, a link to a Middle East Media Research Institute page with the lowdown on how Bugs Bunny was enlisted for an apparently long-running campaign to poison the minds of the gullible against Arabs and Islam. (The specific cartoon in question must be A Lad in His Lamp, directed by Robert McKimson and released in 1948.) Well, we always knew Bugs was a New Yorker...could it be any surprise if he's Jewish?
May 5, 2012:
Back in 2007, I posted about about the book Inside UPA, and I mentioned specifically a photo of the staff that was mislabeled as "c. 1950" but that I was sure had been taken earlier. I had a copy of the photo, which I posted on this site along with a larger version with identifications of most of the people in it. I wrote: "According to both Paul Smith (who owned the photo) and Mary Cain (who identified most of the people in it), it was taken in 1948; Mary also said it was used for UPA's 1949 Christmas card."
One of the people in that photo is an animator named Maurice "Morey" Fagin; he's No. 21 in the large version I posted. Now, thanks to the generosity of Morey's widow, Mary Fagin, and her son, Rick Fagin, I have that 1949 Christmas card, which I've reproduced above.
Through some ingenious cropping, no one in the original photo was removed. The drawings on the card are from early UPA cartoons like Ragtime Bear, Spellbound Hound, The Miner's Daughter, and Giddyap. No sign of the Fox and Crow, you'll notice.
I've written before about Michael Sporn's efforts to raise the money he needs to get his independent animated feature Poe off the ground. He's now making a second effort, through the Indiegogo site, and this time, because he has chosen the "flexible funding" route, he'll get to keep whatever money is raised. His target is also lower, $13,000 versus the $21,500 Michael was trying to raise through Kickstarter. The Kickstarter pledges totaled more than $13,000, so the new target should be attainable. As explained on the Indiegogo home page for "The Poe Project," Michael would use the money "to produce a final trailer and some completed animation."
As I've complained before, it's sickening that the Don Bluths and Ralph Bakshis of the animation world have been able to raise money for so many dreadful feature films when Michael Sporn, a much more gifted artist, has had endless difficulty finding even the little money he needs to show what his low-budget, high-art feature would be like. Kickstarter and now Indiegogo have been his last resorts, and for a filmmaker they are, it seems to me, intensely problematic. Asking for small contributions to get a film off the ground isn't quite like drumming up small contributions for a political campaign; your base of potential support is obviously much smaller. But if, given the limited size of that base, you set your funding goal at a level so high that as a practical matter you're asking people to chip in hundreds or thousands of dollars, some people may quite reasonably wonder why they shouldn't get a piece of the film, instead of just dropping money in the filmmaker's tin cup. I hope that by lowering his target to $13,000 Michael has struck just the right balance.
Eough of such quibbles. What matters now is getting some money into Michael's hands so that he can demonstrate to serious backers what an excellent film he's going to make. I've made one contribution of $50 so far, and I'm sure I'll add to that before the deadline arrives on May 25 (and I'm not signing up for any of the perks, either). You can contribute as little as $15, and I think a flood of contributions in the $15-50 range—that is, small enough that everyone involved knows they're true gifts—would do a lot to validate the whole funding process. It would also bring us closer to having an animated feature on the screen that is actually worth watching.
I'm generally content with the structure of my site, but occasionally I'm reminded that I haven't covered every contingency. Sometimes, for example, a post will have attracted thoughtful comments for a couple of weeks, but then, weeks or months later, someone will see that post for the first time and send me an excellent comment that would get overlooked if I simply attached it to the earlier comments. Such was the case when I heard from Nathan Phillips, who wrote in response to my January 21 post, "I don't think we can continue." Rather than add his comment to the comments on the earlier post, I'm posting it here:
Just a quick thanks for your recent comments about "sincerity." My mother recently sat me down to watch Enchanted, which she says is now her favorite Disney film (!). I'm a ruthless partisan for the first five Walt Disney features, most of the '30s-'40s shorts and a few things after, but in my family this translates as me being a huge fan of DISNEY(tm), the company as it exists now as opposed to the man and the animation studio as it was, and I'm too polite to harp on the difference much.
I didn't see a review of Enchanted'anywhere in your archives but I'm willing to bet you've seen it, so you know how it goes: opening with a very forced "tongue in cheek" cartoon sequence that attempts to undercut or mock the various tropes of traditionalist "princess" Disney films. There was one scene that made me smile, but it was entirely live action and dealt with comedy-of-errors sitcom theatrics that had nothing to do with the story or its audience. We didn't finish the movie—had to eat dinner, thankfully—but driving home my girlfriend, also silent during the film, asked me what I thought of it and I surprised myself by saying "It made me sad." I couldn't articulate the reason beyond a basic dislike of the constant "wisecracks" that seem a requirement for children's films these days... but your mention of a consistent absence of "sincerity," or even just empathy for the characters occupying the frame, really nails it for me.
Your larger point as well about "sincerity" manifesting itself as pure craft would seem to hold true for many Hollywood films in general today. And that's also why I've never warmed to the so-called Disney "renaissance" features during Katzenberg's reign; not only, as you note, is the animation often uninspired, the refusal to take any of the characters fully seriously strikes me as enormously cynical. How do you really accept the depth of a love between, say, Aladdin and Jasmine, when the entire film seems constantly on a quest to second-guess its own emotional content?
I know you feel, as I do, that Pixar has failed to deliver on its initial promise (I do disagree with you about Up, but I'm sympathetic to your points about it nevertheless) ... but one thing I must say for them is that I do think they avoid this particular pratfall. Their characterizations might not be full or complete or believable, but the emotions are taken seriously and I don't get the impression that they are set up as some cautious cross-demographic pandering mechanism. (I loathe the "here's a dumb joke for the kids, followed by an instantly dated pop culture reference for the adults!" mentality. Ugh.) At any rate, thanks again as always for your insightful writing.
Nathan's comment made me wish that I'd said something about Enchanted when it was released five years ago. My recollection is that the animated opening didn't seem straight enough—that is, didn't seem enough like real, unapologetic Disney—and the live action pulled its punches—that is, didn't make fun of real Disney in a knowing and pointed way. If you're going to make a film like Enchanted, you ought to have the courage of your convictions, in both directions. "Courage" is not the word that comes first to mind when I think about today's Walt Disney Company.
From Kevin Hogan: I would agree that Enchanted played the “Disney Fairytale” too strait to be truly funny (the “Work Song” number in the apartment was a bit more on target as comedy than the rest of the film).
I don’t find the film as quite discouraging as Mr. Phillips did. While I could feel Disney executives holding the satirical strings back, the film did feel like Disney was finally trying to have a little fun with itself (I sense a better film lies on the cutting room floor or in earlier drafts, but the film was nonetheless adequate in reaching its obvious goals). I think that may be what bothers many Disney fans, such as myself and Mr. Phillips. The company would rather have a film that celebrates that “Disney Magic” in an adequate way than question or challenge the past with something truly new. Walt Disney never placed his work on a holier-than-thou pedestal—he challenged his team to do better. I think Disney films today feel less sincere because artistic choices are being made now with less conviction (i.e., less corporate bravery). I believe most fans leave the theater content after seeing Enchanted, but not changed in the way that the best older films did.
I personally enjoy most of the Pixar films, although I agree that the studio lacks ambition in moving computer animation forward and taking risks. The studio also ultimately disappoints when it resorts to manipulating its audience (i.e., Up’s early montage). I think I enjoy the films more than you appear to, Michael, because I find the story work in most of the films to be a saving grace more often than not. The flaws in the films become more apparent once one walks away from the film (and the manipulation looses its force), but I still find several of the films enjoyable overall. I personally can forgive certain flaws if the story is strong (Toy Story 3's story overcomes the poor human animation for me, while Up’s disjointed story cannot overcome the sin of emotional manipulation). My fear, having seen Cars 2, is that even Pixar’s grip on story is slipping. And if that’s the case, there will not be much left to watch….
[Posted May 16, 2012]