Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Marvel Rehabilitation

DC Comics had stolen a march, we weren't in the Golden Age any more and superheroes and comic books had grown and evolved into motion pictures.  Marvel fitfully competed with DC's own fitful efforts.  Licensing deals came and went and whilst X-Men scored big The Incredible Hulk was soon to have a reboot of a reboot. It was all a bit haphazard until a shuffling of management and the ascension of Kevin Feige.  Feige was to put a coherence to the making of Marvel films and forge the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The billion dollar juggernaut would awaken Disney whilst making DC look slightly impotent as they held Christopher Nolan forward as their one shining light.  It's not just the Easter eggs that make Marvel films work.  And to think Iron Man had been stuck in the very definition of development Hell for nearly 20 years.  Marvel just needed something, a little spark.

But how does he pee?

The spark was Robert Downey Jr.  The very definition of perfect casting as Tony Stark.  Stark and Downey Jr are immensely similar.  Essentially, both are brash Bruce Waynes, playboy arseholes with a twinkle in the eye that makes them forgivable and likable.  It's not even Downey Jr's impeccable facial hair that makes Iron Man a good movie.  It's paced perfectly, not too CGI dependant given the circumstances and the casting is spot on.  A relatively lame ending is handled well and pitched just about right by director Jon Favreau.

Iron Man always struck me as a Batman rip off without the emotional issues but the filmmakers have managed to distinguish the two.  Jarvis abandons human form to become a docile Terminator and Stark's relationship with Rhodes is brought in as a central theme.  The corporate giant isn't a Waynesque loner twisted by rage but a sociable, champagne swigging capitalist; Eisenhower's military-industrial complex in human form.  Stark's inherited genius and resourcefulness see him design a life saving exoskeleton which makes him Iron Man.  Seemingly at a loss for anything better to do Stark uses his alter ego to promote peace much to the chagrin of his business partner , Obadiah Stane.  It's amazing that a near death experience can cause an egotistic prick to abandon chasing profits to go off and do some manufacturing in his home workshop.  It's elements like this that make Stark a little unrelateable; he has everything at his disposal and the inexplicably named Pepper Potts will tidy up any mess he makes.  Iron Man rattles along enjoyably enough as Stark attempts to reconcile his friends with his new metallic persona whilst the background rumbles with Stane's Machiavellian jealousy.  Naturally enough it all comes to a head with two iron men battling each other.  It's the gentle introduction of Agent Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. that make Iron Man less than formulaic. 

Now Stark isn't just at odds with himself and his former business partner but the quintessential Man In Black from the Government looms over him.  The explosion of popularity for S.H.I.E.L.D. has spun off across the Marvel universe and a lot of this is down to typecasting.  Clark Gregg is always a face of Government, neatly suited and booted in The West Wing or as a policeman in CSI amongst other things.  We have to wait for a hideously tacked on post credits scene to see just who Coulson works for, a scene which paves the way for all following movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Iron Man is used as an introductory tool, a foundation and a marker for what Feige wants from his comic book properties.  For years DC had the market cornered  with the exception of Marvel's interloping X Men but now there can only be one outcome: an Avengers film.  The only problem is how to introduce so many characters of a team without confusing an audience.  Marvel's solution was simple: give them all a standalone feature before bringing together a super team.  Iron Man is merely the first square.  Marvel passes go and collects considerably more than $200.

Iron Man was clearly produced with the intention to spawn a legacy of sequels and whilst Jeff Bridges is great you feel Downey Jr needs a villain for his quips to bounce off, someone like, say Sam Rockwell.  But he'll have to wait as Marvel are getting the green paint out again on Photoshop.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Superman: The Homage

Whilst Batman Begins was being filmed Warner Bros sought to resurrect their other superhero franchise and bring Superman back to the big screen.  The project was called Superman:Flyby and the premise was a complex trilogy to make Superman dominate the cinema for the next ten years.  Playing with timelines and resurrection it's little surprise the story had JJ Abrams' fingerprints all over it.  Production meandered as the traditional problems with a Superman film reared their head; difficult casting, directors in and out whilst even choosing locations was difficult.  Abrams loitered as Warner Bros approached Bryan Singer whose idea of a returning Superman was approved when presented to Richard Donner.  Singer was a safe pair of hands having superhero experience with X-Men and the shining light of The Usual Suspects in his back catalogue.

The silly decision to cast Josh Hartnett as Superman was annulled amid typecasting and commitment fears.  The door opened for a pre-vegan Brandon Routh.  He certainly looked the part.  It's rumoured Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth signed on without reading a script whilst James Marsden began a quest to appear in as many superhero franchises as possible.  If they reboot The Green Lantern you know he'll be fishing around.

Routh is pretty darn good as Superman and as Clark Kent.  He manages to capture some of Reeve's charm as Kent without overdoing the goofiness and then step into the blue suit retaining a level of vulnerability that we haven't seen in previous Superman incarnations.  The main problem is the story he finds himself in.

Superman has been absent for five years, looking at the space debris of Krypton. Quite why is never really explained.  Neither is Kent's parallel absence.  He's been away 'finding himself' or something yet returns without so much as a suntan.  Verisimilitude goes so far but now it's got to the point that Lois Lane will only know if Clark Kent is Superman if it's announced via neon sign.  That rohypnol kiss back in the day was mighty powerful.  Maybe it's because Lois Lane now has a son, a son full of afflictions and weaknesses that he may as well have a neon sign that says 'Son of Superman.'  This brings worrying thoughts though.  When Supes and Lois got their freak on what stopped him getting carried away and blowing her head off?  Why was she so blase about shagging an alien? How defective are Lois' genes that they make the son of Superman so sickly?

Right, that's enough of that. Lex Luthor is trying his old real estate ploy again albeit with a twist.  Spacey looks like he's having immense fun as Luthor and hams it up darkly, changing wigs willy nilly whilst actually getting down to the nitty gritty of trying to fight Superman by levelling the playing field.  The Luthor trip to the Fortress of Solitude is inspired in it's villainy, matched only by the look on Spacey's face as he demands to learn everything from Jor-El and the Kryptonian crystals.  The inclusion of Brando as Jor-El takes us all the way back to 1978 and the supersaturated whiteness of Krypton.  It's comforting after Nuclear Man and the wilderness years.  Odd use of a model train set sees Luthor's real estate scam updated.  The only nagging doubt is just how he managed make a Kryptonite sheath for his island crystal.

Luthor's Return to Oz moment

Back to Superman, he's returned and had a beer with The Liability Formerly Known as Jimmy Olsen, but now what?  As Kent and as Superman he's alone, discarded.  The world has, seemingly, moved on.  The world doesn't need Superman anymore.  Or does it?  Handily, Luthor's model train set experiment has some aeronautical ramifications and affords Superman the opportunity to extol the virtues of air safety but ruin a ball game.  It's good, and quite the spectacle, but you can't help feeling that Superman Returns could have done with one more big set piece like this one.  The tumbling Daily Planet doesn't count.

Hey, that's an interesting theme. Shall we explore...oh, no. OK then.

It's clear that Superman Returns is a sequel and an homage to Donner's original Superman two parter but it's in this homage that sit jarring anachronisms.  Superman isn't really updated, it seems the only real updates have been rolling news channels and a ban on smoking in the workplace.  In this Internet age what would Kent really be doing in print media? And just who gets to walk back into a job after five years? Especially as he wasn't really any good.  It's lovely that Eva Marie Saint lives on the old Kent farm and plays Scrabble but in the city you'd expect a little more advancement even if the city is the misty eyed Metropolis.

Superman Returns is an OK film, not a great one and it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel.  Sadly, the studio and director would get distracted whilst the option on Routh's contract would expire.  It's telling that he's more remembered as Scott Pilgrim's confused vegan foe.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Why Do We Fall?

The corpse of Schumacher's Batman had gone cold, nipples presumably still erect, the Millennium had come and gone and Warner Bros were, understandably, nervous of superheroes.  The Matrix had come and spawned inferior sequels whilst Fox had dalliances with The X Men and Daredevil. Quality and success was inconsistent. It was all a bit haphazard.  For every Spider-Man there was a Hulk and every Blade a Catwoman.  Disney was yet to establish and mine Marvel Studios and Time Warner seemed to view DC as an unwanted inheritance.  Undoubtedly, there was money to be made but there was no vision, no continuity.  There was something missing and it took an Englishman to find it.

Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer set out to humanise the Bruce Wayne/Batman axis and make us care about the whole package and not just the Batarang round the back of the Joker's head.  The rumoured development of Miller's Batman:Year One looms heavy over the story as does The Long Hallowe'en and it's ideas of corruption and organised crime running Gotham whilst a surprising serial killer stalks the streets.  Loeb and Sale effectively balanced villains' origins and a surprising twist, something Nolan surely took as inspiration.  Not only were the actual comics really being used as source material but the realism and darkness of 80's and 90's Batman was being taken from the page to the screen effectively.  Burton's cartoonish realism was being usurped by a Taxi Driver cityscape easily identifiable as the industrial Northeast of the US.

Nolan seemed like a safe pair of hands for a new crack at Batman.  Despite not having an extensive filmography his ace in hand was undoubtedly MementoMemento was one of those films that Hollywood studios like: cheap and successful both critically and commercially.  It cost $4.5 million and pulled in five times that on a release fuelled by word of mouth and viral marketing.  Viral marketing would become a core feature of The Dark Knight trilogy and the following Man of Steel. Cloverfield would have MySpace profiles and Japanese drinks but Batman would have 'I Believe In Harvey Dent' and mysterious chanting.

Nolan's character driven approach was to be a refreshing tonic for the franchise now twitching back to life.  Nolan and Goyer chose to do something not yet seen on film; they chose to fully explain how Bruce Wayne adopted the Batman persona.  Batman Begins was to truly be an origin story. Yeah, we all know kiddie Wayne went to the theatre and watched his parents get dispatched by a mugger, but was this mugger really a pre-sheep dip Joker?  No, that was just convenient artistic license.  Lifting Joe Chill from the comics was much more satisfying.  Indirectly, Chill creates the Batman and Chill's time in jail is used to accelerate the story.  An amazing ensemble cast is presented as Bruce Wayne grows up and disappears.  The double act of Michael Caine's Alfred and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is a perfect antidote to Rutger Hauer's Earle and his boardroom schemes.  The corporate shenanigans are far removed from the brown slime, corruption and rain which threatens to swallow up the idealistic Lt. Gordon.  Gary Oldman has a knack of looking younger than he is but at the same time conveying huge amounts of weariness and wisdom as he stands alone against the old school Irish gangsters led by Tom Wilkinson.  He might have an Italian name but Falcone is more The Departed than The Godfather.

The time spent laying Gotham's roots parallels Bruce Wayne's training in Batman: Year One but this time Wayne is trained by the ominous League of Shadows.  But who is Bruce Wayne/Batman? Nolan chose Christian Bale and looking back there couldn't have been anyone else for the role.  Jake Gylenhaal would've been great for me but back then he was too young and inexperienced, his Donnie Darko days whored for a teen turn opposite Dennis Quaid.  Much has been made of Bale being ever so method, bulking up from Trevor Reznik a little too much and hating the suit they made him wear.  Bale is yet unleash his full tetchiness as McG will testify.  It was less The Machinist and more Equilibrium and American Psycho that made Bale the best choice, these films showed he had the physical and mental edge to compliment his undoubted ability.

Bale would need an enemy of suitable gravitas.  Despite his amazingly beautiful blue eyes Cillian Murphy wasn't quite enough.  It's clear Dr Crane was a secondary villain but who he was really working for comes as quite a surprise.  Murphy is excellent as Crane and his alter ego but Nolan and Goyer didn't make his character big enough, presumably the payback for this was to have Crane as an ever present in the trilogy.  Crane's weapon of choice inspires some excellent hallucinations and it's fitting that the action explodes in Arkham Asylum.  The hospital had become a comedy dumping ground under Schumacher but is restored to Victorian horror by Nolan.  The completion is augmented by the cameo of Mr Zsasz, a particularly nasty foe of Batman.

Batman Begins sees Bruce Wayne adopt technology and grow into the role of vigilante.  Aided by Fox we move from billionaire spelunker and adrenaline junkie to full blown vigilante.  Whilst the Tumbler is the most eye catching of the technological advancements it's not the most important.  Wayne's improvisation and eye for the theatrical leads him to delve into his am-dram days and come up with the costume.  The attention to detail is remarkable, whether deliberate or note the Batsuit is heavy and hot, yet flexible.  When Bale put the suit on he hated it, his bad mood channelled through the character to make Batman a figure of rage and vengeance.  Everything is explained from the electrically manipulated fabric to the trial and error cowls.  Fox is Bruce Wayne's Q and does provide some light relief.

The same cannot be said of Rachel Dawes.  I've flicked through comics, Selina Kyle, Vicki Vale, Leslie Thompkins, Silver St Cloud and Jezebel Jet.  All woman of various ages and connections to Wayne and Batman but no Rachel Dawes which probably explains why I find her character so irritating.

Nolan may not have been convinced he'd get another crack at Batman but Warner Bros went into marketing overdrive ensuring the critical success was matched at the box office.  Batman Begins wasn't the biggest film of 2005  (come on, there was a Star Wars and a Harry Potter that year) but it did beat Hitch and The Fantastic Four.  All of a sudden those calling cards in Gordon's evidence bag weren't just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Arnie the Panto Dame

The world's annoying bank.

 Batman Forever had been a commercial success and with it a superhero franchise was consolidated.  Joel Schumacher's hands were viewed as more than capable and Warner Bros eagerly filled them with $125 million.  Batman and Robin was to be pressed into production as soon as possible.  It was going a little too well.  Bring back the age old problem of superhero casting!  Luckily, tensions between Val Kilmer and Joel Schumacher that bubbled under the surface of Batman Forever came to the surface.  Did he jump?  Was he pushed?  Do we really care?  Kilmer had already signed up for a new project: The Saint, not the live action Pinocchio which would suit his talents down to the ground. Casting directors looked no further than television's newest heartthrob, George Clooney.  Presumably David Duchovny was seen as a little dour.  Clooney's 'charm' would be tasked with balancing the escalating acid trip of Schumacher's Gotham.  If only they could have found him a jacket that fit properly over those turtlenecks.  O'Donnell would reprise Robin and Uma Thurman, inexplicably, chose to be Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy.  Despite some casting continuity and a Pulp Fiction hangover the cast looked a little light.  A big gun was needed.  A big gun with a shitload of bad puns.

In 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger was deployed as the practically mute Terminator.  It was a stroke of genius to take Conan and put him leather and flick the switch to 'relentless.'  The years came and went and Arnie's star grew with them; The Running Man, Predator and Total Recall gave Arnie a special place in most of our hearts.  Then Arnie decided that he needed a touch of reinvention and, disregarding Stallone's abject attempts, decided to try a bit of comedy.  In truth, it was patchy.  Sure, there was Twins and Kindergarten Cop sprinkled amongst the action films, then there was True Lies  and as much as I can't abide the film at least Arnie was funny in it.  You'd really expect the nadir to be Jingle All The Way.  It's the hope that kills you, it really is.  Twenty five million reasons saw Arnie accept Joel Schumacher's phone call and top billing for Batman and Robin.  To be honest, if I'd been asked to get covered in silver body paint and wear fluffy slippers I'd want a big bag of Warner's swag too.

Now there's a man who's just seen Admiral Adama

It's not as if Arnie's costume was the main problem.  As if switching between a shivery and slightly noncey uncle to a cheap imitation of a Cylon wasn't enough the metallic body paint makes it look like a bad attempt at blacking up.  The whole visual concept of Mr Freeze is simply dreadful.  A somewhat tragic character resurrected in comics was belittled by poorly CGI'd weaponry and an unhealthy homage to the 60s series.  Anyone would think that Batman and Robin was being produced solely to sell toys......

It's been well documented that Schumacher wanted a 'toyetic' cartoon of a film and what better way of solidifying a marketing opportunity than introducing a new hero?  A substandard sub plot allows for the introduction of Barbara Wilson/Batgirl.  Hang on, shouldn't that be Barbara Gordon?  Well, yes, but then why let years of comic book history and a potential future storyline involving Batgirl and Oracle get in the way of a new action figure with poseable limbs and detachable cape?  Is Batgirl supposed to be an opposite for Poison Ivy?  Is she a love interest for Robin?  Is she there to gently give dear old Alfred more of a role?  Is she there to necessitate a cameo for Coolio?  Quite frankly the only thing that makes Batgirl interesting is Alicia Silverstone, her burgeoning film career about to be dashed by thi shideous mess of a film.  Clueless 2 would have been a better career move.

Batman and Robin is a struggle to watch.  Pre Matrix wire fighting and bizarre use of vehicles take place in the ever more confusing Gotham City.  The city's pink is pierced by Mr Freeze's blue and Ivy's green and yet it's hard to even maintain interest.  The comical inclusion of Bane further pollutes a story of ice and something to do with diamonds and satellites.  I'm sure a Saturday morning cartoon audience would keep up but they'd be secretly longing for  Thundercats to start.
The real legacy of Batman and Robin

Schumacher wanted one more crack at completely dispelling the memory of Burton's Batman in the form of Batman Triumphant. Thankfully Triumphant went the way of Superman V as nails were rapidly hammered into the camp coffin that Batman now inhabited. Clooney himself called the film a 'waste of money' and Schumacher later apologised for the tone. The damage was so great that Batman wouldn't be seen on the big screen for nearly ten years and when he eventually made it back in Batman Begins it was seen as a bit of a gamble.

The only real positive gleaned form Batman Forever and Batman and Robin is that they reinforced the idea of Batman should be: dark, brooding and flawed.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Forever is a Very Long Time

A teaser poster that's arguably better than the film
Dissatisfaction swept through the corridors at Warner Bros.  Yeah, so Batman Returns made a pile of cash but it didn't make a big enough pile of cash.  The consensus seems to be that Burton was making Batman too dark, driving him into that cul-de-sac whose residents are only ever Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder and Helena Bonham-Carter.  A bit odd considering it was this very darkness which made Batman such a success in 1989 in the first place and help make films like The Addams Family and Edward Scissorhands successful.  Still, the powers that be wanted to expand the franchise's audience and so Burton was moved upstairs.
In the producer's chair Burton had to find a director and settled on Joel Schumacher, he'd made The Lost Boys and Falling Down so looked like a good choice.  The news gets better as rumour has it Schumacher wanted to make an adaption of Batman: Year One.  Frank Miller's story of Batman's beginnings and his relationship with Commissioner Gordon was obviously a bit highbrow for studio execs who pushed for a more traditional sequel.  We have yet to fully embrace the notion of a prequel.  Christopher Nolan is thanking his lucky stars for that.

Batman now undertook a dramatic change, harking back to the 60s TV series and noir was replaced by nipples and neon.  It was a cynical decision to exploit toy markets and cash in on the burgeoning 60s nostalgia that swept Hollywood; a craze that would involve Austin Powers, The Brady Bunch and, horrifically, Bewitched.  Michael Keaton decided he didn't like the direction the film was going in and ignored the millions offered to him, so now we needed a new Batman for the new Gotham.  Keaton's decision is completely understandable as Bruce Wayne's vinyl clad arse introduces Schumacher's version of Batman.

Keaton had been an unpopular casting decision which came good for Burton yet none of the actors he won the part ahead of seemed to be considered for the role this time around.  Within days of Keaton's snub came Val Kilmer's casting.  Kilmer was passable in Tombstone and did a good Jim Morrison impression but if you don't count Willow his best role is the obscured Elvis in True Romance.  Hardly a good CV for someone carrying a superhero film.  Kilmer's star power would need a bit of a boost to draw the crowds so the new kid's favourite Jim Carrey was cast. presumably on the back of The Mask with Tommy Lee Jones adding a little gravitas.
Kilmer's Elvis: the second best thing about True Romance

Carrey is in his element as Edward Nygma/The Riddler bouncing around in spandex and chucking out sound effects as he attempts to suck up Gotham's brainwaves.  Apparently Carrey has ADHD and it's employed to full effect here.  The same cannot be said of Jones.  Jones looks and feels uncomfortable as Two-Face, with just seconds spent as Harvey Dent.  His costume and make up are impressive but the character lacks a true reveal in the film's opening and his motives are never really explored.  Why does he blame Batman? What are Sugar and Spice doing all day?  Billy Dee Williams was probably quite pleased Schumacher paid him off.

So Batman Forever has two larger than life supervillains.  The dynamic is different from Batman Returns where Catwoman was more antihero than villain and it was decided that the numbers needed evening out.  Wisely, Robin was removed from Batman Returns.  This sage decision was reversed for Batman Forever.  There was a reason why Christian Bale said he'd quit as Batman if they cast Robin and it's probably Chris O'Donnell.

O'Donnell represents those perpetual teenagers of 90210 becoming a Stand By Me wannabe and again is miscast.  Robin is eager to learn and aid Batman in the comics and grows to want his independence as Nightwing.  Batman Forever's Robin is antagonistic, impatient, dislikeable and more of a hindrance than a help bent on avenging a bomb induced trapeze disaster.  If you think that's bad wait until 1997.

MTV Superheroes
The supporting cast is stripped down in number or it could be that they're simply lost amongst the bizarre scenery of Schumacher's Gotham City.  The 1940s hotchpotch has been replaced by a mix of skyscrapers and masculine statues of varying and disorienting heights and inexplicable placing.  All of it drenched in pink neon.  Office blocks literally face a face of statue for no apparent reason.  Is there a hub in the midst of all this chaos? A little oasis of calm?  No, there's The Statue of Liberty, presumably dumped in Gotham City after Superman saved it during his tussle with Nuclear Man In Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  Quite how the studio, producers or writers thought this would work is beyond me.  Amongst the pink wobbles Commissioner Gordon usurped as a figure of authority by the needless Dr Chase Meridian.  Meridian is almost an afterthought of a love interest and provides the classic damsel in distress for Batman to save in the film's climax.  Somehow, the noted psychologist is less interesting than photojournalist Vicki Vale.

Batman Forever is a confused mess, designed to help Kenner toys boost it's balance sheet and give Warner Bros a light, family friendly franchise.  There's too much going on, a nonsensical plot straddling commercial desires and reaching for MTV and the Friends generation.  Bizarrely, it got an Oscar nomination and an immediate sequel despite the shoddy CGI and disinterested leading man.  It's a sad indictment that U2 being on the soundtrack isn't the worst thing about a film.

In The Dark Knight Harvey Dent says 'the night is darkest just before the dawn.'  In 1997 we'll see just how right he was.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

It's That Time of Year Again

We're hurtling towards 'Change your calendar or look cheap' day. Or January 1st depending on your mood.  It's that time of year where enforced jollity and gluttony will give way to guilt and an empty wallet.  That's when it's time to make silly promises to yourself: a month of no drinking, cutting down chocolate, going vegetarian, other half hearted 'resolutions.'  Maybe even the doozy, the Big Kahuna: detox.  The trouble is it won't really be a detox.  You'll replace a couple of lattes with green tea and an extra glass of water, you'll carry on eating bread but you might have a salad with a few added goji berries or whatever else is fashionable.  True detox is painful and disgusting, the body likes its little addictions to sugar and caffeine and will punish you for depriving it of a fix.  Headaches and bad breath are the least of your worries and you'll still pop the ibuprofen to keep aches at bay, defeating the object.

So there we go, a couple of weeks without a Dairy Milk before you cave in and gorge on unseasonably early Creme Eggs (don't worry, they'll be on special offer) maybe 'just one' glass of wine, perhaps you'll give yourself a night off from spin class and the treadmill 'just this once'.  Whatever it is there will always be something chipping away at the good intention. Maybe you'll dig your heels in and go for the ultimate in New Year's Resolutions and give up smoking.

I'm a smoker, not an ex-smoker.  I'm a smoker.  On hiatus, I don't think you can ever be an 'ex-smoker.'  My relationship with nicotine has lasted half my life yet this break came abruptly.  I didn't resolve to give up.  I just stopped smoking.  OK, so there was a hangover that lasted three days and fully earned its 'epic' tag but that's just circumstance.  As my body revolted against imbibing I couldn't face having a cigarette, my stomach couldn't face that kickstart and it occurred to my fogged mind that I had no craving for the deathstick.  In fact I hadn't knowingly thought about a cigarette let alone having a smoke.  So that was that, no need to go to the corner shop, no need to wonder who nicked my lighter, no need to have emergency matches.  No need to say 'keep an eye on me pint, I'm going for a faaaaag.'

Giving up helps you live longer, or does it just seem like longer? Was that George Bernard Shaw? If Jed Bartlet doesn't know, how the bloody Hell should I?  What I do know is that I don't really miss it.  I do miss not being able to get into a pair of 28" jeans.  I don't miss the stone and a half I've put on as I graze the sweetie jar a little too much.  Almost constant gum chewing accompanies the now perpetual cold I endure but I can smell and taste more.  Sometimes a blessing as fruit is rediscovered; sometimes a curse as August journeys on the Northern Line take their toll.  I do miss the feeling of  a billion black stars exploding in my bloodstream, the chemical warmth flooding my body, the kohl supernova as nicotine infused blood reaches the heart.  I  do miss the pleasant lightheadedness of the morning's pre-breakfast B&H unravelling the muscles and feeding the receptors created in my brain.  I miss watching the blueish white smoke curl and crawl into frosty air, wisping towards leafless trees.  I associate smoking almost exclusively with winter.  Despite this, I wonder if I ever actually enjoyed smoking or if it was just a habit.  There would be that first cigarette in 24 hours that would floor you, raising the blood pressure and greening the gills.  I don't miss the lonely walk to the smoking area.  I don't miss the disapproving looks outside the hospital or the shopping centre.  I don't miss the cigarettes annoying ability to fill your eyes with stinging smoke.  The smell of cigarettes is horrible, the yellow fingers are repulsive, the price of a twenty deck is forbidding and yet they still appeal.

I stopped smoking without patches, without e-cigarettes or even gum.  I bought nicotine gum 'just in case.'  The stuff is vile.  It's flavour is what I imagine an ashtray would taste like and it attacks the gums like a feverish jalapeno begging to be spat out.  There have been lapses, drunken of course, as I've let myself have two and half fagerettes in just shy of a year.  Pretty good seeing that I went through upward of 30 a day way back when.  You can add another 20 deck to that if it was a long night out and about.

So don't bother with resolutions.  It'll just be another wasted gym membership.  Just do what you want.  If that means you stop drinking or deepthroating Mars bars then stop.  Get help if you need to but don't do it because you ought; do it because you want to. It'll never work otherwise.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Batmania and the Burton Vindication

The mid '80s were a time of trickle-down travesties and trade union bashing.  It was all rather miserable and bleak and I was merely a child.  Despite the doom and gloom two things were happening in sunny Los Angeles: Jack Nicholson turned chewing scenery on screen into an art form and Tim Burton became attached to possible Batman movie.  Burton, an animator, had been faffed about by Disney and stumbled into success when Pee-Wee's Big Adventure inexplicably became a box office hit off a tiny budget. Further success came with the sublime Beetlejuice and Warner Bros decided to greenlight Batman with Burton at the helm.  Then the problems began.

One of the best graphic novels ever
Now, as we learnt from Superman a comic book movie can't have a smooth production.  The '80s had seen the rise of the graphic novel with Frank Miller and Alan Moore giving Batman a grittier, bleaker flavour, truly The Dark Knight.

When Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman it seemed that the new movie would be completely at odds with this.  Burton was known for cartoon colour whilst Michael Douglas changed his name to Keaton (after Buster) and shed the taxi cab for comedy.  Now think back to Batman's previous big screen outing in 1966.  Were Warner Bros making their version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Unfounded omens didn't look good and Warner Bros responded by hiring Bob Kane as a consultant who approved of the project.

Burton bristled against the producers as he tried to cast Brad Dourif as The Joker whilst they had already approached Nicholson for the role amidst rumours of David Bowie and Willem Dafoe.  Who else but Jack could be The Joker?  Well on the way to legendary status and one of the few remaining hellraisers of Hollywood, Nicholson would bring Oscar laden credibility to the production.  He'd done big, hammy characters with The Witches of Eastwick and The Shining and long shouldered the burden of stardom from Five Easy Pieces onwards. Not that bagging Jack would be easy.  An incalculable fee that made the Guinness Book of Records and a contract that would make it easy to be louche were minimum requirements.  Let's face it Jack can do what he bloody well wants and we'll all approve at the smallest glint of that grin.  Factor in a horse riding accident and an oddly predictable writers' strike and cameras were almost ready to roll.  Filming at Pinewood was secret and such was the clamour building that police had to be called when footage went missing.

Batman was a changing beast.  It was changing from a superhero movie or a comic book film into a revolution.  The marketing alone changed the nature of the summer blockbuster.  Teaser posters were everywhere.  Spring sunshine was soaked up by black posters bearing only the symbol of the bat.  Merchandising became omnipresent, from the usual novel to the slightly unusual cereal.  I've still got my Mattel Batmobile knocking around.  It needs a lick of paint and those eBay prices make you faint.  Batman had two soundtrack albums with a Prince soundtrack cementing Batman's place in the zeitgeist.

Batman saw a change in the approach to traditional origin story telling.  The Wayne tragedy occurs in flashback and whilst there are a few liberties taken with the comics it's true enough, establishing just enough of Bruce Wayne's pathos without becoming cloying.  Unfortunately, we also have an origin for The Joker when the ambiguity and mystery of the comics make him all the more fearful by not giving him a definitive past.

Our opening scenes produce a neat and clever twist as comic book fans are invited into the Wayne's mugging only to be displaced.  This displacement is largely down to the film's tone and setting.  Our perceptions of time are being played with.  Burton's retro-futuristic Gotham is an homage to Fritz Lang yet it's populated by ageless automobiles and muggers taunt us with the very '80s American Express.  The '50s curves of the Batmobile caressed the ugliness of the city in a way Nolan's and Schumacher's never did. Amongst the seediness is an elegance and colour is supplied by Burton and exploited by The Joker.  Green and purple collide with newsprint and darkness throught the film.

Our main players are introduced and sub-plots established.  A jealous love triangle, police corruption and Mob betrayal give way to the chaos of The Joker as he attempts to eliminate Batman at the bicentennial parade.  There's a pace to the story that is hampered by the writers' strike as the middle section of the film becomes a number of set pieces loosely connected.  The Joker's mime act lacks build up and the unexplained disappearance of the Gotham City Police Department is jarring as is Batman's attack on Axis Chemicals.  It's a shame there hasn't been a director's cut to add some flesh to these bones.  There's plenty on show that is glorious, from the pure glee on Nicholson's face after joy buzzer deployment to the excellence of Keaton's performance of the fractured Bruce Wayne,  looks like Burton got that one spot on, from the model cathedral to the parade balloons leaking Smilex gas.  The juxtaposition of the manic Joker against Bruce Wayne/Batman's (probably more dangerous) pathology is as potent as it ever will be.

It'll be twenty years before an unnecessary argument over whose Joker is better: an argument that can't be settled by the way.

It'll be twenty years before the breaking of Bruce Wayne is explored again and Batman's position as a necessary but flawed hero is restored.

Before then there's some PVC, nipples and neon and too much pantomime but Batman will return.