Deadpool 2 – Entertaining But Nothing Too Special

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It’s easy to lambast a sequel, especially a sequel to an unexpected runaway hit like ‘Deadpool.’ Low-budget success stories almost always lead to bloated, high budget follow-ups. You’d think lessons have been learned, but this is the trend and things don’t change very swiftly in the Hollywood circuit. With a fifty million dollar budget, ‘Deadpool‘ walked away with more the three-quarters of a billion dollars at the global box-office. This makes it one of the most successful R-rated films of all time and, when we consider investment-cost versus return, ‘Deadpool‘ is one of the most successful comic book movies of all time. Of course there was going to be a sequel.

Consider, for just a brief moment, ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’ It’s likely to break the billion dollar tape, but production costs (before advertising) are rumored to be around three-hundred-million dollars. Speaking dollars and cents, ‘Deadpool‘ is a hum-dinger of a smash-hit compared to the likes of this season’s most aggressively promoted and widely talked about blockbuster. Spend fifty and make a thousand, or spend three hundred and make a thousand? The math is pretty simple, isn’t it?

Bloated budgets lend themselves to bloated features, and that’s really the only problem with ‘Deadpool 2.’ After it’s initial success, nobody was surprised that the studio green-lit a follow-up with an increased budget, increased scope, increased scale, and increased ambitions; in some ways (not all) it’s hard to deny that the money was spent wisely – on excellent action set-pieces, extraordinary visual effects, and surprising cameos. But the cast size has more than doubled and, as a predictable consequence, the narrative is less focused.

I grant the follow-up to ‘Deadpool‘ one thing: it’s a film that knows exactly what it is.

I know we don’t like to give much credit to goofball comedies and comic book movies – we don’t expect them to earn awards for screenwriting or acting or find a seat at the film archive at the library of congress – but what separates a good film from a bad film isn’t genre. Self-awareness is what separates the wheat from the chaff; nobody spoke of ‘Dumb and Dumber‘ as an award-worthy feature, but it’s still considered a contemporary classic because it wasn’t ever trying to be anything other than precisely what it was. There’s nothing worse than mediocre Oscar-bait trying to be something more than it is – consider ‘J. Edjar,’ ‘Seven Pounds,’ ‘The Soloist,‘ ‘Stop-Loss,’ and even successful scam-jobs like ‘Crash‘ and ‘The Hurt Locker.

I’m not much into spoilers, which makes it hard to talk about ‘Deadpool 2.’ Hidden jokes in machine-gunned dialogue, background easter eggs, and at least one major (and hilarious) cameo, this is a film that is less about being high art and more about being a carnival ride, a roller-coaster, a treat to the senses that appeals, let’s face it, to our baser selves. Severed limbs, creative visual effects, and the occasional fart joke never hurt anybody. And ‘Deadpool 2‘ is worth the price of admission.

Gunslinger – A Western Illustration

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This is an older painting that only a small number of my cohort have correctly identified.
I never had much of an appreciation for the Western genre of film-making. My father was raised in an era in which westerns were incredibly popular, and he tried to share his love for ‘Have Gun, Will Travel,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ and some of the old John Wayne classics like ‘The Cowboys.’

Admittedly, I liked ‘The Cowboys,’ but there was always something about the genre that never really gripped me.
Well, all things in good time, I suppose.

I pretty-much accidentally rented disc one, season one of ‘Deadwood’ from Hollywood Video, back in the day when Hollywood Video and Blockbuster still existed. At the time, rental houses were just starting to feel the strain that Netflix had been putting on the rental industry, and Redbox was just around the corner. I had a cheap-as-dirt membership that allowed me to have any three movies I wanted for any amount of time I desired. Derelict that I was, I would pick up three discs on my way home from work, rip the content, and then swap them out for three more the next day; this was before the whole RealDVD debacle and I was, for that brief window of time, actually ripping the content legally (read about it here).

This unchained freedom to stockpile media led to me watching a lot of content I probably would have passed over otherwise, including almost all Westers. But I devoured the Sergio Leone films, ‘Shane,’ ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘3:10 To Yuma,’ and dozens of others. And when I found ‘Deadwood,’ it was all over. I was astonished by the writing, the set design, the costuming, the music and texture and magnitude of the whole thing.

And I started making illustrations with a western theme, occasionally hybridizing the theme with Dia de los Muertos imagery – skeleton cowboys, sugar skulls, and the like. The illustration above is inspired by a lesser-known Western that captured my attention a few years ago – let me know if you can tell what it’s from in the comments!

Have a great day, everybody!
-joe

The Wounded Cowboy

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This is one of those old illustrations that sat, untouched, for years at a time. I’d eventually get around to it, do a little bit of work on it, get discouraged, and set it aside for another year. Just one of those projects that, at the very beginning I thought had some promise and I eventually lost my passion for.

But my passion for taking these orphaned, unfinished projects and finishing them? Definitely stronger.

Forcing myself back into this piece – inspired, as many of my illustrations are, by the cinema – I thought about the tradition of Western Films in American cinema, and how these themes have begun to resurface in movies like Logan, which intentionally and overtly borrowed from movies like Shane and The Cowboys. This piece, in fact, is a study from James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma – James Mangold also happens to be the same man who directed Logan.

This didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t a headache trying to finish it. I found a good flow and I’m glad to close the chapter. I hope you like it.

Deadpool

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In the spirit of finishing old illustrations that have been abandoned – and in the spirit of the Deadpool sequel coming out in about a month – I decided to finally polish this one off and call it done.

Sure, there have been rumors of production problems, but those stretch way back to last year when we learned that director Tim Miller was leaving the project. There are always rumors that circle these productions and yeah, it’s never good to hear that a director has either left or been excused from a project; the Han Solo film has endured similar scrutiny and they’ve brought Ron Howard in to “fix” the movie.

Evidently, test audiences haven’t responded well to the initial cut of ‘Deadpool 2′ and the studio has been scrambling to re-shoot scenes and cobble together another edit in time for the premiere. Whenever I read a story about test audiences, I remind myself that if test audiences got their way we wouldn’t have hits like ‘Seinfeld’ or cult classics like ‘Bladerunner,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ or ‘Fight Club.’

Test audiences are unreliable, at best.

To be fair, though, sequels almost always suck. From ‘Wayne’s World 2′ to ‘Dumb and Dumber Too,’ there aren’t many good sophomore titles in any franchise of any genre. Save for your rare instances like ‘Terminator 2’ or ‘Aliens,’ it’s predictably challenging to recapture the magic of a hit film. I don’t expect ‘Deadpool 2‘ to be as fun or surprising as its predecessor, and it likely won’t perform as well at the box office, but I’m pretty confident I’m still going to enjoy the ride.

I’ll see you at the movies, guys.
Cheers.

-joe

On The Hilltop

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There’s a hilltop in Bisbee, Arizona, just a few miles north of the Mexican border. It sits over Brewery Gulch, casting its shadow over the canyon homes. The last several months I lived in Bisbee I was in a deeply disturbing relationship and everything around me seemed to be in chaos, but I would hike up to the cross on the hill every morning with my dog and enjoy the quiet and the peace.

I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the power of intention. I’d heard stories about the man who built this shrine, decades ago, and about the effort it took, hauling concrete and materials, an armload at a time, from Tombstone Canyon up to the hilltop. In the years since the cross was erected, other people have added onto the shrine. The ashes of peoples’ loved ones have been spread there, piles of candles have been left on the backside of the hill where a shrine to the Guadalupe Virgin has been built. A mural of Jesus is painted on the side of the hill and a monument to the people who have died in the desert trying to cross into America has been established; at the site, people deposit items found in the desert, left behind by border crossers, from backpacks and worn-out shoes to tooth brushes and baby bottles.

My heart is still in the Mule Mountains, even if it’s no longer in Bisbee. I will never forget the brief moments, sitting on the hilltop on those silent mornings, watching the sun rise over the desert.

‘How ‘Bout A Hug?’ (Dumb and Dumber Is A Damn Classic)

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Working long hours swinging hammers outdoors – assembling scaffolding and hauling materials, scraping elbows and climbing ladders – has oddly taught me a few things about being an artist. The strangest thing is a deeper appreciation for the books, comics, movies, podcasts, and newscasts that are a part of my day-to-day life. Music, above everything else, helps me push through the sweat and bruised skin, the ache in my back and knees when quitting time is still hours away. The other thing I’ve noticed is that it’s incredibly hard to sit down and work on my own personal projects when I get home at the end of the day. It’s hard to ignore the siren’s call of the couch and the television, hard to shake the dust from my shirt and put some effort into my personal passions.

Maybe some of you’ll get this one (but maybe not): when I sit down to start working on something, I like to put on an album I’ve heard a million times, or a movie I know inside and out. I like something in the background that I can ignore. The familiar sounds dampen outside distractions, help me focus on the details of whatever I’m tinkering with. I’ve heard that people with tinnitus find comfort in background noises that drown-out the ringing in their ears; it’s like that.

Well, I was on a road trip with my family – my parents and my sister – when I was twelve years old. My sister had a softball tournament in Omaha and, I remember distinctly, we stayed at the La Quinta. It was a weekend of soft-drinks, nachos, popcorn, and the clank of aluminum bats against underhand pitches. Thankfully I was old enough to be trusted alone in the hotel room and only had to endure a few hours at the baseball diamond. Junk food and cable television were just fine by me. Bored to tears by the whole situation – a twelve-year-old, marooned in Omaha for his sister’s softball league? – I was lucky enough to find ‘Dumb and Dumber’ on the television. It was love at first sight.

When the local video store in Lenexa, Kansas, Flicks and Discs, had ‘previously-viewed’ movies on sale, I was there to scrape them up. I maintained a reasonably healthy addiction to VHS throughout my middle- and high-school years. And let me tell you, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ was quickly one of the most watched tapes in my collection. I should be embarrassed how effortlessly I can recite lines from the film, but I’m not. I’m mesmerized by how this film just doesn’t seem to grow old (at least not to me).

But I’m rambling.

I was tired after a long day at work a few days ago. My body hurt. I found myself sifting through half-finished little projects and I was clicking through distractions on the internet – YouTube ‘this’ and Facebook ‘that.’ I was awake enough to seek out some mindless entertainment, but too exhausted to push anything creative out. I put ‘Dumb and Dumber’ on not even sure if I wanted to watch it. While the movie was playing, I found an old file on my computer – a half-completed illustration that I’d lost interest in years ago. Not caring too much, I started working on it. I was too tired to overthink anything; that was just right, for that moment, for me. Not working on anything grand, not feeling compelled to make something perfect, I was able to just draw, color, shade, and mess around in digital finger-paint.

So here’s a totally unimportant illustration of one of my favorite, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like it’ movies. And hell, even if you don’t like it…how ’bout a hug?

Cheers, guys,

-joe

 

A Portrait From The Abyss Of Abandoned Projects

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In the spirit of finishing old projects that’ve been gathering dust, I decided to unearth this portrait late last night when I found myself unable to sleep. I stalled on this painting years ago, completely frustrated with how it was turning out; I kept re-working areas of the canvas without any satisfaction. Working on it last night, though, I lost myself. Before I knew it, it was time to set the art aside, brush my teeth, and get ready for work.

Sometimes, I have discovered, it’s easy to stare at a composition for too long, to scrutinize it too much. There’s a kind of hypnosis that occurs. And when a piece isn’t quite turning out the way you want, all you can see are the imperfections. The problem areas overwhelm the rest of the composition and a discouraging futility settles in. It’s for this reason that I have so many incomplete projects laying about.

Something else I’ve discovered is that returning to an old ‘problem’ piece can be satisfying. Distance helps clear the cobwebs, and those problem areas don’t stand out as much. Solutions seem possible. The ‘writer’s block’ of the situation has faded away.

I slammed my head against the table so much over this painting and eventually gave up.
Last night, after a few hours, it all came together and became something I’m okay with.
I hope you enjoy it.

-joe

A Lost Portrait

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Almost ten years ago I was laid off from work. It was like being dumped for the first time – I didn’t know quite how to take it or what to do, and it hurt. I had recently moved into an old cinder-block garage that had been converted into a guest house. A dreary place with low ceilings, no climate control, swarming with termites. The air was so thick during the monsoon season that my photographic prints stuck to each-other, ruining them, and the lower areas would collect pools of water.

In short – it was an adventure. Enough time separates the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ that I have some fond memories of sitting on the “living-room” floor with my friend Tammy, playing songs on the acoustic guitar by candlelight when the monsoon storms knocked out the power, a ceramic plate between us on the floor with tobacco and rolling papers. I spent all of my time reading the backlog of books in my collection and would go on bike rides around town.

Another of my friends, Megan, spent a lot of time being a lazy bastard with me, too. Many, many years ago I promised her I’d make a painting of her. As time passed, she would always remind me and I would always tell her I’d get to it eventually. While digging through some old hard drives looking for material for the ‘Image A Day’ project, I found an old folder with some snapshots from that summer of uncertainty, alongside a halfway completed digital illustration. I decided to set everything aside and finally finish it.

The irony, of course, is that Megan has vanished from social media, so I don’t even have the pleasure of tagging her. Smart phones were barely a thing, I was too poor to have one at the time, and none of my old flip-phones survive. So she’s lost to the ages, floating out there somewhere. With any luck, this post will magically cross her path.

In either even, it feels good to cross another project off the infinite list.
Onward and upward.

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January 09, 2017 – The Love Of A Good Woman

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Making art is like writing a love song to the beauty of…being alive. No artist was ever inspired to scratch graphite onto paper or lay pigment onto canvas who wasn’t in love, or devastated by sorrow, with the miracle of being alive, sentient, able to experience all of the landscapes and views, colors and splendor.

Making art with a loved one is transcendent.

The painful part is when love fails. I have a catalogue of photographs, drawings, paintings, of all of the women I have loved in my life. When the relationship fails there are hard feelings and bittersweet memories, and we tend to tell stories of the mayhem and anger and frustration – but I have all of these documents of the good times, and I can’t deny that those good times actually happened.

It kinda keeps you honest, you know? We want to paint a picture of that jerk, that dysfunctional person, that demon – but at the end of the day, we were once in love with them, weren’t we? And social media is extending this, where we can all look back at the jobs that were lost, relationships that ended, sunrises and sunsets that we will never see again.

I am nostalgic about yesterday, for God’s sake. I am riddled with sadness, almost all of the time. Because, at the end of the day, it has all been good, and memorable, and inspiring. And I continue to make artwork and celebrate the experiences I’ve had with those that are close to me, because I have to believe that maybe this time the story will last longer, that feelings won’t turn sour, that the world is going to be okay, make sense, turn out okay.

That’s how I feel when I am with this woman. I feel light. And I feel comforted. And I feel inspired. And there’s no greater feeling than having the love of a good woman. No greater feeling at all.

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The Joker – Why So Serious? (pt.1)

The Joker, A New Illustration From LenseBender Studios

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MORE FROM THE DC CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

The list of complaints about last years’ ‘Suicide Squad’ is a long one. The machined-gunned roll-call character introductions, the underdeveloped personalities, the ethnic stereotypes, and the ‘walk like an Egyptian’ Enchantress – and this is just to scratch the surface – earned across-the-board negative reviews and a deeply conflicted audience.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve been hearing? The prison-tatted goth-juggalo Joker. And while this version of The Joker has earned such disdain, Jered Leto’s performance has simultaneously garnered some of the film’s highest praise. In fact, many moviegoers are hopeful for a ‘Joker & Harley’ stand-alone movie(although this is looking less likely with the announcement of ‘Gotham City Sirens‘). Audience responses to both the film and this new iteration of the ‘ganagster’ Joker perfectly illustrates how polarized audiences are.

What many moviegoers aren’t aware of is that The Joker has undergone several transformations over the last seventy-five years. After Batman was given his own stand-alone comic title in 1940, creator Bob Kane needed to introduce a new villain. Interestingly, The Joker was initially supposed to die in the first issue – with a knife through the heart – but the decision was ultimately made to keep The Clown Prince Of Crime on deck as a recurring character.

It’s easy to assume that the earliest depictions of The Joker would more closely resemble the 1960s television series – whimsical and cartoonish, rather than sociopathic and violent. The truth is, in his earliest story arcs, The Joker was a ruthless killer similar to more recent cinematic portrayals. It wasn’t until editor Jack Schiff was hired that The Joker’s persona was softened in order to market the Batman comics to a younger audience. After the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, The Joker was nothing more than a puckish, thieving trickster.

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Editor Julius Schwartz took the reigns in 1964, leading to the near-abandonment of The Joker character altogether. Evidently, Schwartz wasn’t a fan of the character. If it wasn’t for the 1966 Batman television series, The Joker might have faded into complete obscurity. The show was a hit, however, and actor Cesar Romero provided the first ever live (non-comic-book) performance of the iconic character.
romero-blogAfter the end of the television series – and despite its success – comic sales were flagging. The Joker was reintroduced in 1973, after a four year hiatus and a decision to change formats. Editors wanted to begin telling more mature Batman stories and shed the whimsical camp of the 1960s. This reincarnated Joker was brought back to his original concept: a ruthless serial killer on equal footing with The Caped Crusader. He was also, for the first time ever, depicted as being completely and undeniably insane.
joker-70sIn 1975 The Joker was granted a stand-alone comic series by DC Comics – this would be the first time that a villain would be portrayed as the protagonist in a comic book serial. The series was short-lived, but The Joker’s popularity expanded rapidly. This would culminate in some of the most iconic graphic novels of the 1980s, spawning feature-length animated films, a reinvigoration of comic book culture, and one of the most ambitious films based on a comic book intellectual property, Tim Burton’s 1989 release of ‘Batman.’

(stay tuned for our exploration of The Joker’s depiction in the 1980s though Suicide Squad)
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