Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Comic-Con 2011: Jim Henson's "Tale of Sand"


One of the great things about Comic Con is how the grand and the modest can gracefully co-mingle. There's room for the most massive of Hollywood spectacles, and the most microscopic of independent publishing. But one of the frustrating things about Comic Con is when the organizers confuse the two.

For example, a 45th anniversary panel of the 1960's "Batman" TV series was booked in a mid-sized ballroom.  Hundreds of people were turned away for lack of seating.  Did they not think that Adam West could fill a larger room?

Likewise, The Jim Henson Company was squeezed into a far-too-tiny room for a nice last-day presentation. This should have been a much larger and more-prominently featured event.

Henson Co. archivist Karen Falk (pictured above) presented clips of very early Jim Henson work from the '60s, including experimental animation, TV commercials, and his Oscar-nominated short film "Time Piece." She also elaborated on Jim Henson personally, characterizing him as a man who was restlessly creative and wouldn't let any idea go to waste. She demonstrated through clips how an idea birthed in a personal experimental project went on to be used in a national marketing campaign.

But the centerpiece of the presentation was the upcoming graphic novel, "A Tale of Sand." Based on a long lost 1968 screenplay by Jim Henson and his frequent writing partner Jerry Juhl, "A Tale of Sand" is described by Archaia Entertainment's Stephen Christy (pictured above) as a paranoia piece about the future of technology -- a subject that was very much in vogue at the time Henson and Juhl were working on the script.

Ramon Perez

The graphic novel adaptation is by Ramon Perez, and is published by Archaia. It will be released this fall.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Comic-Con 2011: Marvel TV Development

Marvel held a presentation announcing a line of television projects currently in development. Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel TV (and noted TV and comic book writer), stressed that the following projects are strictly in development and shouldn't be considered certain until "you hear it from Marvel." Due to Disney's acquisition of Marvel a couple years ago, these shows are being groomed for various ABC and Disney networks.
Jeph Loeb

In Development

Marvel TV is developing "A.K.A. Jessica Jones" for ABC. Based on the 2001-2004 comic book series "Alias" (a name which has since been co-opted by a certain other TV series), the Jessica Jones character occupies a niche somewhere between superhero and private detective.

Also in the works for ABC is a new live-action version of "Hulk," a character who hasn't been on TV since 1982. This series will focus on the span of time just after Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma radiation, before the world learns of his horrible secret.

"Cloak and Dagger" would center on a pair of teenage runaways in post-Katrina New Orleans who are abducted and used as human test subjects by a chemist. This awakens their superpowers, which bear a striking resemblance to the Maya y Alejandro storyline on "Heroes" (of which Loeb was a staff writer).

Finally, "Mockingbird" is in development for ABC Family. This series would follow Barbara Morse, a biologist and agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who discovers corruption within the organization and is forced to flee for her life. She then makes it her personal mission to expose and eliminate the corruption in S.H.I.E.L.D., perhaps saving the world in the process.

Coming Soon

As for shows that are in production and heading to your living room soon, Marvel TV is of course moving forward with their flagship character, Spider-Man. Pulling out the big guns, the show runner for Disney XD's animated "Ultimate Spider-Man" is none other than Paul Dini (Emmy winner "Batman: The Animated Series"), the creative consultant is Brian Michael Bendis, and the writing staff is rounded out by a collective known as "Man of Action" (creators of "Ben 10" and "Generator Rex") - Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Duncan Rouleau and Steve Seagle. "I'm extraordinarily proud of the writing talent that we've managed to bring into this," says Loeb. "It speaks to the absolute love for this character and also for Marvel animation as a whole."
Drake Bell voices Peter Parker/Spider-Man

"Marvel Animation isn't just the stuff that we're gonna be doing with XD," says Loeb. Marvel has been running an animated division to create and distribute digital content called Marvel Knights Animation. A hybrid of comic book-style art and 2-D cell animation, Knights converts existing comic book storylines and "bring[s] them to life ... in a way that we've never really seen before" on digital platforms such as iTunes and X-Box Live.

The next project for Knights is the full 25-issue run of Joss Whedon & John Cassaday's "The Astonishing X-Men," out in 2012.

Finally, Loeb announced pre-production of another animated series for Disney XD: "Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H." Spearheaded again by Dini, the series will be loaded with "as much Hulk testosterone" as possible, including Red Hulk, Skaar, A-Bomb and She-Hulk.

With the summer movie season already dominated by comic book superhero adaptations, Marvel is moving full-steam ahead to dominate television as well. These projects represent a smart strategy aimed at varying demographics which, if successful, could keep numerous Marvel properties alive at one time without over-saturating any single group of viewers.

Comic-Con 2011: Zombie Walk

On July 23rd, around 5:30 PM (PDT), a Comic-Con zombie walk broke out in the Gaslamp District across from the convention center. I hadn't heard about it in advance, so I was lucky to stumble upon it.

Most folks dressed up as ordinary zombies, while some were zombie versions of super heroes or various celebrity zombies. There was one Ash, which was a nice touch.

(Click to enlarge.)*

A few people dressed up in military gear to contain the outbreak. When I told them they were doing a terrible job since there were zombies everywhere, they shot back, "Have you been bit?" How did I not see that one coming?

Here's the full (and way too long) video.

*Pictures courtesy of Helby

Friday, July 15, 2011

Chris Columbus Was a Great "Harry Potter" Director

When Home Alone hit theaters, I was a 10-year-old white boy living in a small, heartland-America city.  To put it in business terms, I was what's known as the "target demographic."  I was the type of wide-eyed youngster who could most directly relate to young Kevin McCallister.  Relate, hell!  I was Kevin McCallister, as far as I was concerned.  I believed in nothing less than my ability to fend off a couple of hiss-worthy thieves with nothing more than my wiles and a bit of low-tech equipment.

Home Alone was a children's fantasy story, told simply and straightforwardly.  That's all it aspired to be, and that's all it was.

In a recent article praising the overall artistic accomplishments of the Harry Potter film series, Slate's Dan Kois does something that countless critics before him have done: he dismisses the first two films entirely, and he takes extra care to bash their director, Chris Columbus.  This puts me in an uncomfortable position.  I'm not a fan, per se, of Chris Columbus; and I certainly don't think a successful, multi-millionaire (billionaire?) filmmaker needs my defense.  But as a fan of Harry Potter -- both book and film -- I'm apparently one of the few people who thinks Chris Columbus was exactly what the Potter series needed to get off to the right start.  And my conviction in that belief is what I feel the need to defend.

"Artistic duds" is how Kois characterizes Columbus's Potter movies (his being The Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone and The Chamber of Secrets).  That's reasonable, but short-sighted.  "Art" has never been what Chris Columbus was known for, and it's not really fair to hold him up to expectations he was never meant to fulfill.

Columbus is now and has always been a populist film director.  We're talking about the guy who brought us Gremlins, The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire and, yes, the first two Home Alone movies.  Clearly it's never been his mission to challenge an audience's intellectual or moral beliefs.  He's out to give us a good time, take it or leave it.  And there's a place for that, and it's completely legitimate.  That's why I have a tough time allowing the Koises of the world to get away with saying things like, "Would [Warner Bros.] choose someone who could make a real movie?" or, "A real director could make something lasting" (emphasis mine).  Columbus is a real director making real movies.  If they're not to your taste, that's fine.  Just move on.  No need to invalidate his entire existence first.

To say that Columbus is a "safe" directorial choice is an understatement.  If that guy has any personal demons, he's never let them within a mile of his camera.  His idea of "dark and dangerous" is the occasional dutch angle in Chamber of Secrets.  His idea of a seedy, impoverished artistic community in New York is the rather pristine cityscape of Rent.  Was he ever going to create a sense of real danger for Harry Potter?  Were we ever going to think that Harry and his friends were actually in peril?  No, and that's the way it should be!  Let's not forget, Harry Potter started out as children's books.  They grew dark and forbidding and more adult later.

The fact of the matter is, the first two Harry Potter films needed a director exactly like Chris Columbus.  They needed someone with a broad approach and, more importantly, a broad appeal.  Would he bring subtext?  Would he bring complexity?  Would he bring deeper meaning that the more sophisticated members of the audience would walk away from the theater pondering?  No.  Nor should he!  He need only tell the simple, straightforward story of an orphan boy who discovers that his life is much more interesting than he'd previously known.  That's the fantasy of Harry Potter.  What kid can't relate to that; the belief -- the hope -- that you're something special, something different than the rest of the crowd?  That you possess a "magic" that puts you above everybody else?  (Hell, what adult can't relate to that?)

Simplicity, straightforwardness, and a lack of nuance are the hallmarks of a Chris Columbus film, and he delivered these things magnificently in the first two Harry Potter films.

The genius of J. K. Rowling's novels is that their depth and complexity grows with each book.  The maturity level ages in conjunction with Harry himself, and therefor ages in conjunction with the book's primary audience -- the kids who are roughly Harry's age, and who can relate to him most directly.

Let's try to remember, my fellow adults, how simple and straightforward the world seemed when we were kids.  Even those of us who suffered tragedies in our youths did not have the cognitive skills to fully comprehend what we were experiencing.  We were sad, yes, but our world was still filled with color.

That's what Chris Columbus brought to the Potter films.  A childlike comprehension of the highs and lows, the mysteries and the status quo of life.  This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it sincerely: possibly more than any other filmmaker, Chris Columbus is in touch with the simpleness of childhood.

When I was a kid swept up in the fantasy of outwitting a couple of grown-up burglars, should cultural critics have lamented the fact that Scorsese would have made a more artistic movie out of the same material?  Is that what my 10-year-old brain needed?  I contend that the Potter movies very deliberately grew with their audience.  Chris Columbus eased his young viewers into the series.  If the movies became more captivating for an adult audience after Columbus left, don't hold that against him.  Applaud him for it.  He gave the series exactly what it needed in its early days: a welcoming doormat for its child viewers.  That he stepped aside and allowed other directors to take over when things became more dangerous is also to his credit.  He knew his limits, and he prevented them from interfering.  Perhaps Chris Columbus is a more savvy filmmaker than most critics are willing to give him credit for.