Comic-Con 2019: 50th Anniversary!

Posted on July 18, 2019 at 12:23 am

Fifty years ago, a bunch of comic book fans got together to swap comics and stories and now it is a world-class extravaganza encompassing every possible category of what they call the lively arts. Television, movies, games, books, and, still comics — everything with an element of fantasy or science fiction and plenty that is just plain entertaining. Television comedy favorites are here: Superstore, The Good Place, Seinfeld, Brooklyn 99. Upcoming shows like Pennyworth (the backstory of Batman’s Alfred character) and The Dark Crystal.

This afternoon, I visited the FutureTech Live demonstration of amazing technology, including Focals by North, eyeglasses with a holographic display of your appointments and apps, VR technology to simulate a forklift for training purposes, the KOOV robotics and coding kids that let kids build all kinds of fabulous toys while learning STEM skills, a stunning tour of the galaxy from the University of California at San Diego Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, and an astonishing 3D VR art creation program from Deploy XR. I saw glow in the dark and LED-lit temporary tattoos from Sprite Lights.

More coming, including cosplayers and interviews. Stay tuned.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

What It’s Like to be a Disney Historian

Posted on July 8, 2019 at 3:13 pm

At the splendid Library of Congress tribute on the 70th anniversary of Disney’s Cinderella, I got to speak to Mary Walsh, the Managing Director of Disney’s animation library for thecredits.org.

She told me that “Cinderella” was Disney’s first animated feature after WWII, where it was mostly working to support the war effort. So this return to classic fairy tales was very meaningful for them. An excerpt from the interview:

Cinderella’s blue gown has to be one of Disney’s most iconic dresses.

Yes, like the ultimate Christian Dior design from the 1950s. It’s really interesting for me because if you think about the time in which this story takes place in the 19th century, 1800 – 1840-ish, but yet it was made in the late 1940s and released in 1950, so the design aesthetic that they chose is influenced by that particular time period in France but also the reflections of the artist working in the late ’40s to early ’50s. So her hair, the style of her gown, reflect both eras.

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Tribute: MAD Magazine

Posted on July 5, 2019 at 3:36 pm

MAD Magazine has announced it will stop producing new content after 67 years of indispensable satire that taught generations of kids about the pleasures of snappy answers to stupid questions, the endless battle of Spy vs. Spy, the unexpected juxtapositions of the fold-in, and the subversive humor that inspired everything from “The Daily Show” to “Saturday Night Live” to Roger Ebert, who said he learned how to be a movie critic from reading MAD’s parodies, usually illustrated by the incomparable Mort Drucker. There is not a political cartoonist, stand-up comic, or political commentator who does not owe something to MAD. Like so many others, I subscribed when I was a kid and began to ask questions about the news because I wanted to understand the jokes. It had a huge effect on the way I saw the world, especially the way I saw advertising.

Copyright MAD Magazine 1984

I was lucky enough to interview then MAD art director Sam Viviano, the long-time MAD editor whose “Mrs. Maisel” parody will be in the final issue, back in 2015 for rogerebert.com.

Viviano says that the stars and filmmakers love their parodies, but the problem is the publicists. “Movie press agents are a very nervous bunch. MAD’s whole point is to make fun of it, and that makes them worry. It doesn’t matter that they are working with George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or Frank Darabont, who would do anything to have their properties in the magazine.” Spielberg’s office has framed original art from MAD’s “Jaws” parody and George Lucas also bought art from the parodies of his films. “J.J. Abrams came to the MAD office in New York to look at Hermann Mejia’s art for our parody of ‘Alias.’ They realize that at its best, MAD parodies crystallize what the movie was about and how it was made, the good points and the bad points. These guys are level-headed enough to respect that.” When Viviano put together a book of Mort Drucker’s movie parodies, he went around the publicists and managers to go to the filmmakers directly. He reached out to J.J. Abrams and ended up hearing back from Lucas, Spielberg and Darabont, whose email subject line was “Mort Drucker? Hell, yes!” “He wrote two pages about what Mort Drucker meant to him growing up, how thrilled he was when Mort did ‘The Green Mile,’ and how thrilled he was to be able to buy the original artwork. It isn’t only visual artists like me who were inspired by MAD when they were growing up. It’s creative people of all sorts. The parodies help them see movies in a different way.”

Longtime MAD caricaturist Tom Richmond wrote on his blog about a possible future for MAD, and some thoughts on how it ended up where it did.

In the Washington Post, Michael Cavna wrote an appreciation.

Mad magazine hit a peak of more than 2 million subscribers in the early ’70s, when it memorably satirized shifting social mores and cultural attitudes. Emblematic of that era — when Mad flexed the most pop-culture muscle as a powerhouse of topical irreverence — was a Watergate-era sendup of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew in a “big con” spoof of the hit Oscar-winning movie “The Sting.”

Copyright MAD 2015

But commercial pressures had changed since the ’90s. To try to survive in more recent years, as circulation dwindled precipitously, the magazine owned by Warner Bros.’ DC division shifted to a quarterly publishing schedule and moved its offices from New York to the Los Angeles area. Now, the Mad brand will mostly endure by simply recirculating its classic vintage material, living on through the appeal of what it once was.

Smithsonian wrote about MAD last year, and there could be no better recognition of its essential role in our cultural landscape. The best of MAD is so much a part of our culture that it will never disappear.

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Forky’s Existential Dilemma — Toy Story 4

Posted on June 25, 2019 at 8:00 am

Copyright Pixar 2019

SPOILER ALERT: This post discusses plot elements of “Toy Story” movies.
In “Toy Story,” Buzz Lightyear does not know he is a toy; he thinks he is the “real” Buzz Lightyear. In “Toy Story 4,” Forky, the special friend made by Bonnie in kindergarten out of pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and a spork, still thinks of himself as a single-use plastic utensil, and spends much of the first part of the movie trying to throw himself away. Woody has to teach him that now that he is loved by a child he has a higher purpose: to love and be loved by her, to be a comfort and to inspire her creativity.

In Slate, Matthew Dessem writes about what Forky tells us about the underlying conception of the world of “Toy Story.”

He’s a cute little guy, and Tony Hale’s performance is charming, but Forky’s existence in the Pixar universe throws its entire sentient-toys premise into disarray. Toy Story’s toys have always been mass-produced products, real, redesigned, or imagined; Forky, on the other hand, is hand-crafted. Casual fans might assume that Pixar has merely expanded the Toy Story franchise’s theory of ensoulment: A toy’s life begins at the moment it becomes a toy, and Forky shows that process can happen in a factory mold or a kindergarten class.

I love this deep dive into the complex rules (or maybe just inconsistent as suits the storyline) of the “Toy Story” universe.

I also enjoyed Michael Cavan’s piece about Forky in the Washington Post.

s it happens Forky’s creators did not initially intend for him to have such philosophical depth.

“I wish we could say we sat down and wrote a beautiful character with an existential crisis, but he started off as a joke,” director Josh Cooley says.

“We were talking about what our kids would play with, like a rock,” Cooley says in an interview, “but what if that rock could come to life?”

The filmmakers ultimately decided it would be interesting to introduce a character who has the mind of someone who has never seen a “Toy Story” movie. “He doesn’t understand the rules of this world,” the director says of Forky, “and that became so much fun to play with.”

Cavna spoke to “Veep’s” Tony Hale, who was perfectly cast for the anxious Forky.

Hale mulled the character’s traits. “Forky’s nervous? Check,” the actor says. “He asks a lot of questions, to a fault. Bingo, that’s me.”

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Movie-Altering Company VidAngel Ordered to Pay Studios $62 Million

Posted on June 24, 2019 at 7:59 am

Parents often ask for “airplane versions” of movies, edited to be more family friendly. Studios, who authorize edited versions for international release and broadcast television, don’t like it when the editing is done by others. After some lawsuits, Congress passed a law to make it clear that independent companies have the right to make these edits. It authorizes private companies to edit out material.

But technology has a way of moving faster than the law, and it was one thing when parents would buy a video or DVD and then authorize an independent firm to alter it, but another when it comes to streaming. A judge found that their streaming service was a violation of the studio’s copyrights. A jury has now awarded $62 million to Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers, and the studios have filed a motion with the court to prevent VidAngel from “squandering assets” to make sure they will pay it.

This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, the creators of content are entitled to copyright protection. On the other hand, once you buy a movie, they do not have the right to make you watch every minute of it. So why not give you the option of relying on an outside firm to skip the parts you don’t want to see or hear? I agree that the streaming option they offered, which was more like a rental than a purchase, was not consistent with the copyright exemption in the law. I am particularly concerned with the way this case has been discussed in the right-wing media, as, for example, this headline from the ultra-right Federalist, co-founded by Meghan McCain’s husband Ben Domenech, and famous for refusing to be transparent about its funding: “Hollywood Punishes VidAngel For Cleaning Up Their Smut.” It’s actually the law which is punishing VidAngel for infringing on copyright-protected creative work. I’m pretty sure The Federalist would not want VidAngel to sell edited copies of their newsletter or radio show. And it would not want the government to tell a business like a movie studio that a PG-13 movie is too “smutty.”

This judgment, if upheld, may put VidAngel out of business. Or, Congress can amend the law again to clarify what they can legally do. It was an imperfect solution at best, and whatever happens, we can be sure that technology will overtake any attempt at a solution and parents will always need to be vigilant.

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