Friday, June 14, 2013

The Gab of Steel

Werth: Wise, look up in the sky!

Wise: Is it a bird, or a plane?

Werth: No it's a Hollywood promotional juggernaut for the latest Superman reboot, Man of Steel.

Wise: Henry Cavill's chiseled puss is everywhere.

Werth: While I personally am excited by the trailer—

Wise: And Henry Cavill in a skintight unitard.

Werth:—I have a feeling I'm going to miss that old "comic book" sense of style that some earlier incarnations of Superman embodied. In 1941 producer Max Fleischer of Popeye fame and his brother, director Dave, brought the Superman comic books to the big screen in an animated short-form format for Paramount. 
This was the Golden Age of the animated short, when Bugs, Mickey and Tom & Jerry delighted movie going audiences between feature films and Movietone News segments that showed Europe dissolving into war. They gave the audience time to breathe in between Citizen Kane, Suspicion, and Hitler.

Wise: And made it even harder to sneak out to the john. 

Werth: But with the Superman series, the Fleischers did something a little more elegant than the other cartoons. Sticking to the comic's origin story, these shorts quickly absorbed the audience into the story of Superman, the last survivor of a doomed planet who has super powers like being faster than a speeding bullet and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 
When he isn't fighting for truth and justice, he is disguised as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent whose competitive relationship with deep-throated co-worker Lois Lane will undoubtedly lead to romance.... someday.

Wise: Lois put up a better fight than Hildy Johnson

Werth: What makes these simple cartoons so thrilling is the animation that was used. The comic book becomes cinema with art moderne and industrial designs for everything from a radio, to a cityscape, to a huge death ray; and a film noir lighting scheme that uses shadows and light to rival The Maltese Falcon
Shot in Technicolor, Lois Lane's salmon jacket and skirt are muted yet bold, and the way the figures move is mesmerizing with their jerking, yet fluid movement. Eight of the original cartoons are worth a gander with Superman fighting various mad scientists, a thawed-out tyrannosaurus rex, and a big ape who runs amok on the midway. 
The robots in The Mechanical Monsters clearly inspired the robots used in 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, proving that even a 72-year-old cartoon can still inspire today's filmmakers. 

Wise: The Adventures of Tintin (2011) is based on the beloved comic by Belgian artist Hergé and follows the intrepid young reporter (Jamie Bell) and his dog Snowy as they delve into the mystery surrounding a family curse, a valuable ship model and a sunken treasure.  Combining three Hergé books—The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure—the film is a madcap frenzy of chase sequences, slapstick humor, and derring-do, taking full advantage of the combined talents of director Steven Spielberg and producer Pater Jackson.  

Werth: That's a lot of talent.

Wise: The film was animated using motion capture and does so much more successfully than other projects which have used the technique and rendered their actors as a pack of creepy Botoxed mannequins.  

Werth: It's like being sucked into an all-day Housewives of Beverly Hills Marathon on Bravo.

Wise: The technology allows Spielberg to indulge in every action sequence daydream he's had for the past four decades.  Tintin is not bound by the same physics as Indiana Jones, and as a result doesn't simply evade a boulder or weather a nuclear blast in a refrigerator; 
instead Spielberg stages a chase sequence that involves a jeep, a motorcycle, tumbling buildings, a tank, the torrent rushing from a dam, a trained falcon, a clothesline, a crowded bazaar, and a hijacked ship making its way out to sea.  

Werth: And all of it unleashed in 3D.

Wise: The one element lacking is the emotional heft characteristic of even Spielberg's most lighthearted fare.  It's difficult to say if this is the fault of the format (although Jackson's Weta Digital seamlessly marries Hergé's elegant line with incredibly realistic detail) or the cheerful blankness of the film's everyman hero.  
Andy Serkis is both comic and touching as Tintin's tipsy but stouthearted ally Captain Haddock, and even Daniel Craig's sinister Sakharine has more emotional range.  But even if the film doesn't make audiences cry, it can still make them cheer, which is quite an accomplishment for a comic book thrown onto the screen.

Werth: I'm ready to see if Zack Snyder can make me cheer.

Wise: At least as much as you cheered for the giant, blue, naked guy in The Watchmen.

Werth: Tune in next week for more big screen heroes right here on Film Gab!

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