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.

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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.

‘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

 

June 30, 2017 – The Mission Creeps

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To close out a month of images of performers, musicians, circus acts, and poets, I decided to reach back to the Zombie Prom and the band The Mission Creeps, and a photograph of lead singer James Arr. The following is lifted from their website, which describes their style and method more effectively than I imagine I could:

“Hailing from Tucson, the same diverse music scene that spawned Calexico and Bog Log III, The Mission Creeps spin tales of a different, darker kind of desert, one of lonesome highways and ghost stories. Inspired by art and film noir and horror movies, The Mission Creeps take their cues from bands following similar inspirations, such as The Cramps, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joy Division, and Deadbolt.

Rue Morgue Magazine described their sound as “awash in surf guitar” and noted singer James “Arr’s ability, much like Nick Cave, to switch between seductive narrative and a raving yelp.” Supported by the throbbing rhythms of bassist Miss Frankie Stein and drummer George “of the Jungle Beat” Palenzuela, a scary good time can always be had at their shows. With six releases, they continue offer up musical tales populated with witches, killer gnomes, and parties for the undead while providing beats that keep the body moving and the demons at bay.”

Every performance is memorable. These guys don’t phone it in.

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Logan (Soaring Character Development – Low Budget)

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The struggle between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ is a real one. Content is regularly stripped of complexity to make stories more accessible to more people. Films are also regularly stripped of violence and profanity to achieve a PG-13 rating, making stories more accessible to the widest possible audience. Material is dumbed-down, focus-grouped, and manufactured ‘by committee,’ and the result is often a muddled, boring, effects-driven dumpster fire.

Wolverine Origins is a good example. It had stunning visuals and a magnificent opening montage to illustrate Logan’s near-immortal status and battle-hardened personality, but it also bastardized many beloved characters and fell flat to a passionate fan-base. More recently, we have the Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman debacles, films that spent a tremendous amount of money only to insult hardcore fans. Sure, these films performed okay at the box-office and appealed to casual fans, but they were roundly dismissed by critics and didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped. With huge up-front costs, large action set-pieces, and remarkable visual effects – not to mention monumental marketing campaigns – these films ultimately did not pass muster.

Films made by committee, that attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, never endure. Marketing may contribute to successful opening weekends, but the numbers predictably dropped-off as the word spread. Home video sales take a huge hit in these situations, and movies like this quickly become bargain-bin offerings at Wal-Mart.

We’ve had a couple of wonderful object-lessons in recent years. Deadpool‘s monumental success is often cited as the only reason Logan was allowed to have an R rating. Both films were made with a modest budget compared to other films of the genre and both films performed exceedingly well at the box office. With smaller crews, practical effects, and lower budgets, the film-makers were given more freedom to execute their vision without interference from the studios.

A novelist doesn’t hire a crew of people to change his story in order to make it more palatable to wider audiences. Why is this model so routinely employed in Hollywood? The most celebrated films of all time are typically the realization of one person’s singular vision. The rise of the writer/director in the 1960s and 1970s is our evidence. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are two recognizable names, and they are notorious for their relentless control over their productions. I would shudder to imagine what Pulp Fiction would have been like if Bob and Harvey Weinstein had insisted on focus groups and a rating reduction.

We certainly wouldn’t be revering the film today.

Director James Mangold spun some magic with Logan, borrowing the tone from the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series and allowing the titular character to be exactly what he has been on the written page for the past several decades. The budget was modest and the set-pieces weren’t heavily glossed over with digital trickery. The film was concrete and character driven, something that’s difficult to do with a large ensemble cast. The gravitas of a specific character’s arc is difficult to illustrate with an Avengers-style film, with over a dozen major players to consider. Logan focuses mainly on two characters, Logan and Charles Xavier, and the minimalist approach leads to meaningful and emotional character arcs.

Being smaller is a good thing for super-hero and comic-book properties. The source material is serialized story-telling anyway, and we’ve seen several new comic book properties being adapted for the small screen. Daredevil and Luke Cage, Dirk Gently, Preacher, The Walking Dead, and many others have proved to be successful adaptations of comic book stories, capturing the imaginations of not just children, but adults as well. This is where the R rated film comes into play. Comic books aren’t just for kids, as television networks and Hollywood executives have assumed for an entire generation. Comic books are our modern mythology. We’ve all been raised on comic books and there are plenty of 18+ viewers who want to see these stories told in an adult, mature way.

Logan effectively closes the chapter on the Wolverine story, passing the torch to a new Wolverine. It lays the groundwork for a whole new set of stories without overwhelming glitz and glamour, without throw-away exposition and forgettable characters. The film relies on character and story, not effects. It respects its audience, rather than insulting the audience’s intellect. It did something that few of these superhero films has been able to achieve – it has a heart. It has grounded characters whose struggle we can identify with on some level. In over fifteen years of playing Logan and Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart ended the saga in a beautiful way, paving the way for new stories.

After the success of Deadpool and Logan, let’s hope that the message has been read loud and clear. Audiences aren’t only ready for more mature stories. They want them.

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The Matrix – Transgender Politics?

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Most of us remember the 1999 groundbreaking film “The Matrix,” and most of us enjoyed it enough to forgive Warner Brothers for the cash-grab follow-ups, which will not be discussed here. It introduced a revolutionary new visual style and participated in the invention and popularization of bullet-time photography, which has been adapted, modified, and used continuously in movies and television ever since.

We might also remember that the film was directed by The Wachowski Brothers.

As it turns out, Larry Wachowski (now Lana) is transgender. Rumors began to circulate in the early 2000s that Lana was transgender, but the siblings kept this information private until after Lana’s transition in 2008. The earliest publication to mention Lana by her new moniker, and to refer to the siblings simply as ‘The Wachowskis,’ occurred in 2010. She has been very active in the transgender community ever since, eventually receiving The Human Rights Campaign’s ‘Visibility’ Award.

Just this month, Andy Wachowski also came out as transgender and has adopted the name Lilly.

Lana has expressed in several speeches and interviews that she had considered committing suicide in her youth because of her feelings of confusion about identity. In retrospect, it’s interesting to note that themes of identity are common in films made by the Wichowskis. One of the earliest examples is “The Matrix.” The main character struggles with accepting the possibility that he may be a messiah figure. But there’s also an interesting tertiary character, Switch, who is a clear expression of the Wachowskis’ gender identity. One of Morpheus’s cohort, the character was intentionally designed to be androgynous, and the script even reveals that Switch was supposed to be female in the ‘real’ world and male while in ‘the matrix.’ This was narratively designed to illustrate the concept of “residual self image” explained by Morpheus as a projection, while in the matrix, of one’s most concise and accurate image of Self. While biologically female, Switch views himself as being male.

Casting the character proved to be challenging; time and budget constraints eventually motivated the Wachowskis to abandon this concept, and androgynous Switch was developed, with a pretty ‘on-the-nose’ name. The fact that the character Switch was written in the manner it was, however, clearly points to the very real possibility that The Wachowskis were working through their own gender identity circumstances, and reflects how meticulously constructed the first Matrix film was assembled (and why that first film continues to be a contemporary classic).

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