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.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Superman: The End?

The ejaculation of Superman
Hang about. Superman doesn't need oxygen again? He can speak Russian? He's got another glowy crystal space dildo?  Superman can make things invisible just by squatting near them?  Has Superman's outfit faded in the wash?  These are just a few of the many, many questions raised by Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.  The biggest question of all is just who thought this would be a good idea.  Donner wouldn't go near it and Lester wouldn't touch it with a bargepole either.  The previous films had been huge affairs, lavish almost but here is the Poundland version.  The unmistakable concrete of Milton Keynes dominates as New York's Metropolis becomes a memory.  The Salkinds had sold the rights to the franchise, presumably in a moment of prescience, and despite a halving of budget Cannon Films still put the film into production.  Perhaps it was assumed that the sheer earnestness of the storyline would drag them through.  Cannon obviously weren't content with releasing Masters of the Universe in 1987 so along came another outing for Superman.

Despite the return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor as well as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder everything is just a bit flat.  Reeve didn't really want to come back and was effectively lured in with promises of stroy input, a Street Smart shaped carrot and maybe, just maybe a directorial pop at Superman V.

Reeve wanted the story to be more serious; more faithful to Superman lore and a step away from the good time slapstick of Superman III.  Unfortunately, it seems Cannon Films' scattergun approach to production and corner cutting took greater precedence.  Solid gold nobility in the form of ending the Cold War and nuclear proliferation is the soup du jour.  Croutons take the form of tedious underdeveloped sub plots. The corporate takeover of The Daily Planet is uninteresting and Luthor's newly acquired nephew (who is most definitely not Matthew Broderick) is annoying.  Gone are the days of Puzo's grand vengeance story arc and Mankiewicz rewrites.  And then......then there's Nuclear Man.  Dolph Lundgren was away having a dust up with Frank Langella so the 'role' went to the unknown Mark Pillow.  Poor old Mark couldn't build a career on these fragile foundations.  A flimsy script, dodgy locations and cheap special effects are a plague on all their houses.  Oddly enough, no one seems remotely bothered that Lex Luthor's hair has grown back.  If I'd been Hackman and was playing a role for the THIRD time I think I'd have had a word.  Or a shave.

United Nations based peril
The last time I saw the United Nations on my tellybox Cary Grant found himself in a spot of bother, now Superman goes for his Polaris Missile Removal Scout badge.  ICBMs in their hundreds are rounded up and cast into space.  Yes, it all sounds vaguely familiar and Superman really should have worked out how The Phantom Zone broke two movies ago but on he goes.  These aren't the only feelings of deja vu suffered during Superman IV:The Quest For Peace.  Meanwhile we are asked to accept that Luthor has become a master genetic and nuclear scientist whilst behind bars.  Some pre-Jurassic Park genetic tomfoolery sees Luthor make his evil Superman clone and Nuclear Man is 'born.'  It's all a bit pointless, Superman first appeared in 1938 and so was nearly 50 at the time of production.  As proven by Batman there is a plethora of material to plunder for effective villains.  Couldn't we have had an attempt at Bizarro, Brainiac or even Mister Mxyzptlk?  No, instead we're left with the strangely animated Nuclear Man.  In two year's time Tim Burton will use animated techniques to help The Joker and Batman to much more successful ends.

Everything's just so flimsy,  it's hard to invest or arouse any real interest and you begin to get itchy feet around the 40 minute mark.  From 1978 to 1983 Superman was, literally, on top of the world.  Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was such a hammer blow to the hero's heart it's surprising that even 1999 was early enough for Warner Bros to bash the reboot button.  Especially if those Tim Burton and Superman Returns rumours were true.

This film's only redeeming feature is the double date sequence.  Superman and Lois versus Clark and the entirely forgettable Lacy Warfield.  Superman rekindles his slapstick tendencies but it's Reeve's charm that pulls it all together.  You can almost forgive him for another Rohypnol Kiss earlier in the film.  An epic lunar conclusion is sadly a wasted opportunity as is the Great Wall of China spat and I'm struggling to even wonder that much about all those deleted scenes.  Even The Liability Formerly Known As Jimmy Olsen is an afterthought.

For now, Superman's star has fallen.  There's a bigger shadow coming to take over the late 80s and 1990s.  The Dark Knight is coming back and he looks a lot like Beetlejuice.