Wonder Woman – Rebooted To Perfection?

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As mixed reviews funnel through the infinite avenues of internet film criticism, there does appear to be some consensus on one particular issue: in the new “Batman V Superman” feature, the depiction of Wonder Woman is exceptional. The movie is something of an effects-driven, superficial peek into the DC Cinematic Universe, trying incredibly hard – and failing on a number of tiers – just to try and catch up to the success of Marvel. For comic book enthusiasts and movie freaks, this isn’t news; we already knew, months before the movie was released.

The movie is, in so many ways, a bloated mess.

We see yet another retelling of the Batman origin story, an exercise as silly as approaching a stranger and asking if they know about Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a vacuous sequence that adds nothing to the movie. Anybody interested in doling out twelve bucks for a ticket, let’s face it, already knows the story. It’s the perfect example of a “by committee” decision, made by executives who, unlike fans, have no real emotional connection to the source material. It’s forgivable enough, I suppose, and maybe even a little expected – so be it. It was done well, the slow-motion sequence resembling comic book panels more beautifully and effectively than any other depiction of the origin story. So there’s that.

We also see a newer Batman, older and cynical, more violent and erratic, impotent and resentful in the shadow of the god-like alien from Krypton. We see a subversion of the morality we expect from the Caped Crusader, a war-weary vigilante who views criminals as weeds, perennial inconveniences that always reappear, no matter how many times you try to pluck them from your garden. We see a digital dossier of the “meta-humans” – other superheros in the DC canon – in a ham-fisted set-up presumably for future movies.

The movie has lots of issues, both narratively and tonally.
It happens.

The best part of the movie is a toss-up between Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Both portrayals are phenomenal. Affleck captures the charismatic swagger of the moneyed executive and steps into the cape & cowl with finesse. His relationship with Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) is tenuous, complex, and believable, rivaling the jibber-jabber we saw in the Christopher Nolan films with Michael Cain in the Alfred role. The twenty minutes, give or take, that we get to watch Wonder Woman are arguably the most enjoyable twenty minutes of the entire film. With the tongue-and-cheek television portrayals of yore, the primary colors and glossy idealism, I don’t think anybody had any real expectation that Gadot’s portrayal of the character would bring anything interesting to the film. During the production, there was a lot of “thin-shaming,” with comic book fans insisting that their Wonder Woman is a towering, strong, meaty beast of a woman – that there’s no way that the slim, slinky Miss Israel could ever convincingly present the power and presence necessary to breathe life into the heroine.

Wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The lasso isn’t silly, the strength of body and character are crystal clear. I enjoyed the film, despite its flaws, but I’m actually looking forward to a Wonder Woman solo picture more than ever – something I never would have expected.

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Fight Club – I Am Jack’s Lost Sense Of Self

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One of the first movies that ever inspired me to create fan artwork was “Fight Club.” Looking back, there are plenty of opportunities to tear holes in the ethos of the film, but the film is intentionally self-critical, which buttresses it against any concrete philosophical criticism – this is one of the things that’s so brilliant about it. It expresses an anti-corporate, crypto-fascist morality, but it’s also laden with ad placement from Pepsi, IKEA, Tommy Hilfiger, 7Eleven, and many, many others. What I think helped the film overcome its abysmal box office numbers – and eventually achieving cult status in the years following its release – was it’s exquisite illustration of disenfranchisement, job dissatisfaction, and a gnawing frustration with consumer culture.

Today’s illustration is yet another addition to my collection of “Fight Club” inspired illustrations, with the unnamed narrator played by Edward Norton and his only emotional anchor, Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it, and I hope you might consider adding a print to your art collection. Cheers!

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Happy Pi Day!

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Forget the smattering of delicious home-baked goodies swarming social media. “Pi Day” will always remind me of the pseudo-noir psychological thriller from esteemed director Darren Aronofski. It’s a difficult plot to summarize, but suffice it to say that it has the feeling of an experimental film, shot in cheap black-and-white film-stock with golf ball sized film grain that serves to hugely influence the dark tone of the film. The main character is a supremely brilliant mathematician that becomes obsessed with the number Pi, an obsession that leads him down a severely dark path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly, highly, recommend  it.

In honor of the day, I sat down and hammered out this illustration, which is now for sale at my online storefront.
Cheers!

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Ghostbusters Reboot – What Are They Thinking?

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One week ago, the new trailer for “Ghostbusters (2016)” was released. In the internet age, the release of a trailer is a significant event, an event in which the online community is able to instantaneously react to the the material. Message boards and comment sections immediately begin to swell with the opinions of amateur and professional media prognosticators alike; the fate of many films seem to be decided much earlier than the actual release date. If we remind ourselves of the considerable excitement generated by the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” trailers, as well as underdog films like “Deadpool” (the trailers of which managed to secure the attention of comic book lovers and total Deadpool neophytes alike) and realize that these trailers translated into record box office numbers.

Since the “Ghostbusters (2016)” trailer debuted, there isn’t even a fifty-fifty split; the people have spoken, and this feature is dead on arrival. With over twenty-two million views (as of this writing), the two minute video has garnered twice as many ‘dislike’ votes than ‘like’ votes. Reaction videos immediately begin to spring up over the past week, and the general consensus is that this film is going to be atrocious.

So what happened?

Many commentators have cast the new film aside as a contrived, politically correct rehash, tailored to the “social justice warrior” contingent and hordes of vapid ‘millennials.’ This is an absurd knee-jerk reaction. Director Paul Feig has already proved his mettle with comedies featuring strong female leads in smash-hit films like “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” as well as sitting in the director’s chair for several episodes of the hit television series “Nurse Jackie.” The cast itself has a long list of successful projects under its belt, especially Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, two actresses whose off-beat brand of comedy have attracted a great deal of attention.

A more honest analysis would require a quick discussion of the first “Ghostbusters (1984).” The original film was completely new, with a variety of inventive and novel concepts. It presented a coherent story, blending interesting characters, horror tropes, and comedy in a seamless tapestry. It was an interesting and fun film, unencumbered by audience preconceptions, laden with fast-tongued protagonists and filled to the brim with undeniable creativity.

This is what we would call a “tough act to follow.”

Remaking a genre film is risky business. Consider, as an example, if “The Force Awakens” wasn’t a continuation of our favorite story told in a galaxy far, far away, but actually sought to re-cast and remake the original “Star Wars: A New Hope.” It would not go over well. Fans of the franchise would revolt. While the cult status of “Ghostbusters (1984)” is arguably less pronounced than “Star Wars,” it is a cult classic nonetheless. Nobody wants to see a remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for a reason. Cult films do not translate well into updates, remakes, or reboots. They too easily threaten to alter the very elements of the original film that audiences have come to know and love.

Another problem with the new “Ghostbusters (2016)” is that the trailer isn’t clear about the universe in which the story takes place. The trailer begins with the line “thirty year ago, four scientists saved New York.” This would indicate that the new feature is a continuation of the narrative from the first and second iterations of the franchise. This is hugely problematic because the new feature is a “hard reboot” of the 1984 film; it’s a stand-alone re-telling of the original story set in contemporary New York with an all-female cast. The four beloved hucksters from the cult-classic do not exist in this new film’s canon. There are rumors of a Bill Murray cameo, but there’s no indication that he’ll be reprising his role. Chances are, he’ll be little more than an easter-egg for fans of the original films.

For almost fifteen years there have been rumors that a third Ghostbusters movie was in the works, a film in which the original cast would reprise their roles. Unfortunately the project never got on its feet and, with the death of Harold Ramis in 2014, the project was abandoned altogether. In the interim, however, it was clearly recognized that there was interest in rebooting the franchise. Once it was known that the original four (Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, BIll Murray, and Harold Ramis) would not be on board, a whole world of possibilities opened up.

I don’t believe the decision to make the new film all-female was an attempt at political correctness. Rather, it was an opportunity to expand the demographic reach of a beloved property; it’s an attempt at expanding the audience. There would be nothing wrong with this decision so long as the characters are portrayed as whole women, as characters with agency, avoiding stereotypes of female insecurity and competition – this is where the film appears to have failed. Licking gun barrels and insecurely seeking approval (“The hat is too much, isn’t it? Is it the wig or the hat?”), just doesn’t work. It’s difficult to glean adequate character development from a two minute trailer, but it certainly doesn’t seem like these new characters are as three-dimensional as audiences would prefer.

The “social justice” contingent appears to be cannibalizing an earnest effort at updating this property, but this is only because it has been done so ham-fistedly, incorporating the same-song stereotypes of feminine insecurity and uneducated ethnic minorities, and then wrapping it all up in an unpalatable burrito of updated visual effects, gross-out humor, and Joel-Schumacher-eque neon colored light. Licking gun-barrels and competing for one-liners just doesn’t work.

Where the original film was an adventurous blend of comedy and seriousness, this updated film appears to go full-tilt in the direction of physical comedy. Some of the ghosts in the original film were genuinely scary, counter-balanced by goofy ghosts like the ever-so-enjoyable “ugly spud,” Slimer. It disrespects the source material by disregarding the narrative complexity of the original film. The best comedy comes from a place of thoughtfulness, and this film doesn’t appear to take its license seriously.

Part of the reason why “Ghostbusters (1984)” worked is because the characters were unique and relatable. They were brilliant, marginalized outcasts railing against supernatural forces and governmental bureaucracy at the same time. The new “Ghostbusters (2016) is a focus-grouped cash-grab, and audiences can already tell that they’re being taken for granted by Columbia Pictures.

This, my friends, is what happens when you cross the streams.

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Colossus – Gay Icon?

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It had to happen. While watching the new “Deadpool” film opening night, this image immediately struck my psyche. I was immediately reminded of famous fashion and celebrity photographer Herb Ritts and one of his famous – and famously gay – portraits of a muscled man holding tires. His body of work is impressive, and I count him among one of the photographers who truly inspired me, even though I never developed in to a studio portraitist.

herb ritts

This image took a few hours to render, but I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. Let me know what you think.

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Movie Review – Jane Got A Gun

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It isn’t possible to have a frank discussion about “Jane Got A Gun” without mentioning it’s labored creation. Originally announced in 2012, an avalanche of problems tossed this movie into production purgatory. It’s important to note these troubles because, without mincing words, it absolutely shows in the final cut. I can scarcely recall a film with such a short run time that felt so relentlessly long.

Billed as a western co-starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, and Michael Fassbender – to be directed by Lynne Ramsey – this esteemed property hit a wall at breakneck speed. In 2013, Fassbender abandoned the project in pursuit of a more ambitious “X-Men” feature. Edgerton was shifted into the vacated role and Jude Law was hired to replace Edgerton. Director Lynne Ramsey then abandoned the project, thrusting the whole production into legal proceedings before Gavin O’Connor stepped in to direct. Director of photography Darius Khondji then left. Then Jude Law left, expressing that he’d only stepped in to work with Lynne Ramsey.

I could go on, but it’s the same game of “musical chairs” that isn’t worthy of further discussion. Slated for an August 2014 release, the date was postponed – twice. It finally landed in the post-holiday wasteland of mid-January 2016. With virtually no marketing, no press screenings, and no hopes of finding a staid audience, it’s a near-miracle it’s even in theaters. No resemblance to an Aerosmith song title could help. This one was dead on arrival.

If we consider these woes, however, we aren’t surprised to learn that “Jane Got A Gun” missed its mark. To its credit, the film isn’t half as bad as one might expect, delivering a couple of well-staged scenes and solid performances  (especially by Natalie Portman). The film plays like a classic Western, and this is where it simply doesn’t work. Rather than attempt to reinvent or deconstruct the genre – as contemporary moviegoers might mildly expect – the narrative is weighed down by poorly developed characters and a staggering snail’s pace, with a series of ham-fisted flashbacks used, poorly, to elucidate the emotional complexity of the characters.

The film is clunky, and where modern audiences might expect dynamism in the characters, we see tired archetypes, caricatures that hop about the stage like marionettes. We can barely bring ourselves to care about their fates. That’s a problem.

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Set in 1870s New Mexico Territory, the film opens as retired outlaw Hammond (Noah Emmerich) returns to his remote home where his wife (Portman) is waiting. Riddled with bullets, he collapses from his horse and informs her that “The Bishop Boys are coming.” So-called “mystery box” setups like this are a wonderful device – “who are the Bishop boys?” – that can engage the audience, but in this instance it carries no gravity. We don’t know who he’s speaking of. All we see is that Jane knows who they are, and that they’re definitely bad news.

She dresses his wounds and leaves him to convalesce, delivering their daughter to a neighboring ranch for safety. She then seeks help from from Dan Frost (Edgerton) to help defend herself from the inexorable onslaught.

Through a series of clumsy flashbacks, we learn that Frost was once Jane’s fiance. He left to fight in the Civil War, unaware that she was pregnant. He is eventually declared dead and she she decides to leave their Missouri home, heading west in search of a new life. Believing John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) will help secure safe passage, she is instead sold into sexual slavery and her daughter is murdered by one of Bishop’s underlings. She is rescued by another of Bishop’s cohort, Ham, who steals her away to start a quiet life together.

Enter Dan Frost, who we learn is alive and well, and has tracked Jane across the country only to learn of her new life and her new daughter with another man. Needless to say, he isn’t excited about the prospect of defending Jane and her wounded husband. Naturally, he shows up at the last minute to lend a hand. What the film establishes is that at least four or five years have passed since Ham betrayed his dapper and ruthless employer (his daughter with Jane is our clue), and the film never adequately explains why Bishop is so hell-bent on exacting his revenge. Sure, one of his men quit. Perhaps Bishop took a loss when Jane escaped the brothel – but we don’t even know if the brothel belonged to Bishop or if he simply sold her, in which case he wouldn’t have lost anything. Is it his pride that was wounded? Is there an “honor among theives” theme that’s playing out? We are never satisfied with an answer.

There is a final showdown, but I will spare the details. It plays out largely as we might expect, with a shoe-horned twist at the very end that the cast does its absolute best to play seriously. The bad guys lose, of course, but I won’t tell you what happens with Ham and Frost and their uncomfortable love triangle with Jane.

The stand-alone performances are admittedly good. Edgerton plays a terse and heartbroken rancher as stiff and stoic, nihilistic and whiskey-sipping as we might expect from a heartbroken lonely man. Throughout most of the film he staggers around like a haggard ghost who’s lost its way. Portman does an excellent job breathing life into her character. Half the appeal of the film is seeing her in boots and dress, smudges of dirt on her face, confidently wielding a rifle. I never would have imagined her in a role such as this, but hers is a compelling performance of feminine strength, spitting words through clenched teeth with a convincing mid-western Oklahoma drawl. McGregor is good, too, playing the snake-like villain so expertly I expect some viewers will fail to recognize it’s even him.

The problem isn’t in the performances. It’s mostly the pacing and the flashback structure, which attempts to fill in the background story before the guns-blazing finale. This serves to distract more than inform the film, not necessarily for their content but for how inelegantly these rocks are thrown through the windowpane of the story. The Bishop character is poorly written. He is the most archetypal “Snidely Whiplash” villain one could possibly expect. Perpetually clad in black, swarthy, mustachioed, a cigar clenched between his teeth in every single scene. All that this cartoon character lacked was a moment to twist his mustache and laugh exaggeratedly at just about nothing for just about too darn long.

This film must be filed under “potential for greatness but didn’t get there.” The skeletal structure is there. Not every story needs to be complex in order to be eloquent and compelling. The problem is that the emotional undercurrent isn’t properly expressed; the connective tissue of the plot just isn’t good. Gavin O’Connor brings this story to the screen, but it doesn’t have any personal touch to it, nothing to elevate it to greatness.

I can’t remember rolling my eyes so much at a feature film. It’s a forgettable movie that could have been special but just doesn’t make it. It isn’t worth the price of admission, although it could make for a fun home viewing. At the very least, I’m happy to see films like this and “The Hateful Eight” coming out – the western genre is in need of a revival. We are almost at full saturation with comic book films, and the comic book bubble will eventually burst – mark my words. It looks like the western might just be making a comeback.

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A Look Back At “Dumb And Dumber”

Seabass postI loved “Dumb & Dumber.” Absolutely loved it. I saw it at the perfect time in my life to truly appreciate its magnificent stupidity while also getting a hint that there was a thoughtful craft behind the crude humor, a quiet genius necessary for this kind of movie to work. That’s right, the perfect time in my life: adolescence.

Two years ago, after finishing the first season of “The Newsroom,” I was pleased to see a picture of Jeff Daniels dressed as his “Dumb & Dumber” character, Harry Dunne, on my newsfeed. Talk about timing, right? As it turns out, the actor went immediately from wrapping the most recent season of his amazingly well-performed – and somewhat serious – HBO drama to once again act the fool with compatriot James Carrey. Twenty years later.

I could have guessed, even before the teaser trailer was released, that this was going to be a throw-away nostalgia grab-bag, a “hey, let’s cash a check” kind of movie. Comedy sequels have this awful habit of ham-fistedly repackaging the same jokes from their franchise, recycling winning punch-lines and tropes. It is a stupid trick that rarely, if ever, works. This usually doesn’t prevent one or two sequels from dribbling out of successful film properties. Quite frankly, after twenty years of lying dormant, I’m surprised this one even got made.

I enjoyed seeing the characters again, and I dusted off my old VHS copy of the original “Dumb & Dumber,” a hunk of plastic I bought previously viewed from a supermarket in Kansas. If you put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be able to tell you a single thing about “Dumb and Dumber To.” It was just that forgettable. I laughed a few times, I think, but nothing really stands out. One might suppose that being forgettably bland is a notch above being memorably awful. And hey, I had an excuse to watch the original one more time, and that was enough to put a smile on my face.

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