Party Like it’s 1989: Batman (4K UHD)

Its difficult for me to seperate the memories of that summer of 1989, and how big an ‘event’ film it was, from Tim Burton’s Batman itself. Its all wrapped up in the same thing- Batdance playing in the charts, Prince’s Batman album, the news reports about its release Stateside, all the marketing/tee-shirts/toys etc. I don’t know what the marketing budget was, but Batmania was huge that summer, with the Bat-logo seemingly everywhere. In some ways the film was a corporate juggernaut, from the casting choices to the use of Prince etc; it’s a testament to Burton’s efforts that the film still feels like it has a singular voice and vision in spite of the demonstrably hands-on studio behind him. 

Batman was the first film I saw in a cineplex, when the Showcase opened up nearby and consigned the old dilapidated ABC cinema in town to history forever (and eventual closure). So Batman remains more a memory of time and place than just a movie that could ever be judged on its own terms- it’s the quintessential ‘event’ movie, in the same way as Star Wars was and Jurassic Park was. Some films are never ‘just’ films.

Its also worthy to note that Batman wasn’t influenced by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as later versions were (Miller’s opus cast a long shadow over Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Snyder’s Batman v Superman). Instead, it definitely appears more focused on the very first comic books prior to Robin featuring- something evidenced particularly by its oddly 1940s ‘look’ which seems to set the film in some strangely timeless world, a curious mix of period fashions and art deco sets and futuristic gadgets mixed will all sorts of retro stuff. In this respect, it’s a lot more like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which itself had a very dreamy, almost lost-Americana feel in which even the films ‘present day’ had a strong sense of early-1970s kitsch even in 1978. Both films of course are commended for taking the original sources very seriously indeed- thanks to endless re-runs on tv of the camp 1960s show, Tim Burton’s film in particular had a big weight around its neck in this regard which is possibly hard to envisage now, all these years later.

The production budget for the film was $35 million, which in today’s money would equal something around $75 million- not as high as might be expected in this age of $150 – $200 million budgets, perhaps indicating the surprisingly smaller scale of the Burton film compared to the later versions (Batman Begins was budgeted at $150 million in 2005, about $198 million in today’s money). The scale of the film is also impacted by the technology of the time. The CGI of the post-Matrix era has really enabled film-makers to open up the possibilities and trickery in superhero films, leaving Burton’s film rather dated with its matte paintings and model shots.

But of course films are always of their time, and I recall even in 1989 being underwhelmed by some of the visual effects and opticals; Batman was always an old-school, overwhelmingly analogue film even in 1989, with obvious nods to German expressionism in film and Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In this respect it remains a certain achievement and a curiously beautiful artifact.

Indeed, it looks damn gorgeous on this amazing 4k release- I’m really quite astonished at how beautiful this film looks now in 4K. Sure much of the fakery still looks fake, but some of the matte painting extensions of Gotham are just breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with new detail and colour breadth. And the sets. Good grief the sets. The interiors are pretty astonishing in detail and lighting (the HDR really benefiting the shadow detail) and the exteriors are really a wonder (the Gotham streets built on the Pinewood backlot and shot at night really impress here with all the added detail). In some ways this Batman is one of the most impressive catalogue 4K UHD discs I’ve yet seen- the HDR isn’t distracting (you’re not blinded by bright lights etc like you can be in some rather revisionary remasters) but simply increases the sense of depth and detail throughout. Its really tastefully done, clearly retaining the intentions of the original film-makers but looking, frankly, better than it ever has, even during its original theatrical presentation in 1989.

An interesting thing rewatching this film after so many years (I really can’t recall when I last saw it, but it was possibly on DVD) is the casting- after seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker, I expected Jack Nicholson’s version to pale in retrospect, but Nicholson’s Joker still impresses, surprisingly still perhaps the definitive Joker so far. There’s something real and fascinating and gritty about him- of course Nicholson is a great actor with real charisma in front of the camera- it’s almost magical here. Jack Napier is clearly a Bad Guy, a self-centered criminal working his way up the crime-syndicate ladder who becomes distinctly unhinged once he becomes the Joker, with what I assume are Nicholson’s ad-libs elevating the movie in just the same way as Robin Williams Aladdin several years later. His Joker is mean and scary and funny in a really fine performance, and yeah, he actually kills people in this- I was surprised when watching this again to see both Joker and Batman kill people. Its a surprisingly violent film considering it also lacks some of the CGI hysterics/stunts etc that later contemporary superhero films are afforded now. Burton actually wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Joker- boy would that have been a different movie.

Jack Palance of course is brilliant, the only problem with his Carl Grissom is that he’s not in the film enough, Palance having a huge weighty gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. Kim Basinger and Jerry Hall remind us just how old the film is/when it was made, Basinger reduced to just screaming damsel in distress most of the film and Hall simply a trophy moll, it’s clearly all stuff they wouldn’t get away with today (Basinger replacing Sean Young as original choice for Vicki Vale, how weird would that have been for me as a Blade Runner fan). I always liked Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, a finely tuned comic performance that is quite measured and successful considering its in the same film as Nicholson’s Joker. Wuhl has always been one of the things I liked most in this movie.

Batman is curiously dated- as I have said, it was dated even in 1989 in some ways, and hasn’t ageed well since, but I did enjoy rewatching it. The saddest thing is that so much was dropped/changed when the sequel was made, and while many seem to think Batman Returns is superior I really don’t like it. I preferred the originals big Pinewood exteriors and interior sets, and really hurt by how much of the cast that we lost (I always thought Batman 2 should have reprised Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent and featured Two-Face as the villian, it’s such just a lost opportunity). Batman Returns just felt like too different a film, and the title oddly ironic, as it wasn’t the return of the Batman I had so enjoyed in 1989- it actually felt like a reboot.

You will have noticed I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue I always had with this film- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Wayne is okay I guess, but his Batman really seems limited. Maybe it was the suit. It looks okay but it was clearly a bitch to shoot, it looks like he can hardly move in the bloody thing. The cape is almost a funny throwback to the 1960s show how it flaps around much of the time, and any fighting sequence is hampered by the suits inability to actually do anything in it without falling over. I always watch the film thinking about Spielberg’s ordeals shooting the mechanical shark Bruce in Jaws and feel that Burton must have had similar sleepless nights with that damn Batsuit. They managed to light it okay in most scenes, with the film’s expressionistic approach and deep shadows helping hide many of its failings, but it’s not the suit a real crime-fighter would employ without being put to death by the first serious super-villain. Its one of the things that dates the film really, but what the hell, it was 1989 I guess.

And of course, even as a big Prince fan, it really does seem weird, his music featuring in this. With it 1940’s looks it always seems funny to see Joker’s goons lumbering around with a 1980’s boombox and Partyman blasting out of its speakers. But yeah, what the hell, it was indeed 1989 afterall. Party on.

 

Advertisements

Best Batman Movie Ever

Aha, clickbait infects ghostof82. Well, maybe not. All will be revealed with my review of the just-arrived Batman 4K UHD, sometime soon. I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s comic-book hit from 1989 for, oh, well over ten years. Might actually have been on DVD, last time I watched this, so I’m pretty curious how well this holds up.

Mind, that is fairly hideous box art, giving the 4K UHD of Alien a run for its money. What were the Warner artists thinking, or was it farmed out to some art design studio that frankly didn’t give a shit?

Rim of the World (2019)

Another Netflix Original but, er, not one of the good ones. Its harmless enough I suppose, and is an affectionate low-budget nod to the Amblin films of the 1980s, but very often when I watch these kind of things, well, I have to wonder, shouldn’t modern stuff have a voice of its own? Why the need to keep on looking back on the past, particularly those genre films that fans remain fond of that are perfectly fine left be? Rim of the World only proves that, well, whatever See You Yesterday or the Back to the Future films might say, you really can’t go back.

Rim of the World is The Goonies versus the Space Aliens, or Stand By Me: Alien Invasion Edition. Or Explorers: The Ugly Aliens Found Us. That’s about it. I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong about that, but when composer Bear McCreary’s end-title of the film begins with an obvious nod to Jerry Goldsmith’s Explorers score, I just thought it was a bit much after nearly two hours wondering down Amblin Memory Lane (its doubly unfortunate, as Bear’s score is otherwise quite fine and enjoyable).

We’ve been here before, and thats really the problem- these Amblin productions that the film-makers here are so indebted to are, what, 34 years old or older? Nostalgie is fun I suppose and while I’m really not the target audience –  its really aimed squarely at kids of 8 -14 – can I just be the grumpy old sod in the corner who points out that, well, instead of watching substandard stuff like this (as sincere or well natured with the best of intentions as it may be) the kids would be best off watching those Amblin originals instead?

See You Yesterday (2019)

Hmm, another Netflix Original, but one of the better ones, providing you can get your head around two teenagers inventing a time machine in a garage. If you can get your head around that, the various time travel paradoxes of old are pretty routine but the film itself has plenty of heart and a big load of energy. Certainly it could teach the writers of Avengers: Endgame a thing or two about constructing a dramatic and involving time travel yarn that is easy-flowing and not liable to cause a headache.

Infact, the only real criticism I have for this film is the ending- somehow I’d totally lost track of time (yeah, how ironic) and thought there was still twenty minutes or so of the film to go, when the credits suddenly came up in what felt like mid-scene. It completely caught me off-guard, as the film (and I’ll be vague enough to try to avoid spoilers here) suddenly seems to end, if not on a cliffhanger, then somewhere that possibly even hints at a sequel. In hindsight, it was intellectually perhaps the perfect place to end it, and doesn’t really need a follow-up- its simply leaving a character in a kind of loop, always doomed to try changing the past to no avail, which is rather neat and quite dark when you think it over. In the moment though, when the credits came on, I was rather annoyed thinking it something of a cheat.

In anycase, this one is well worth a watch, particularly for an early cameo by Marty McFly himself, Michael J Fox,  playing a science tutor, who closes his cameo with a one-liner that is just priceless. It also rather indicates the Back to the Future-inspired story that follows, but there’s a little more added to the mix that might surprise. Time travel can still be a fun ride, but this film also assures us of the consequences, and has some valid and important social messages alongside the time-travelling escapades. Its time paradoxes are nothing new, but it still managed to seem like a breath of fresh air. Yeah, I enjoyed it.

Mortal Engines (2018) 4K UHD

mort3Berating Mortal Engines for being just a silly fantasy is like criticising the Hobbit films for being a saga about little folk with large hairy feet. It is what it is: a dystopian steampunk story, pretty basic in plot with characters that follow the usual tropes. Where it scores, and it does so quite highly, is in its production values- fantastic production design, from sumptuously detailed sets and costumes to brilliantly realised visual effects, all coming together to depict a pretty breathtaking world. In 4K UHD, it looks really spectacular, the details fascinating and the HDR both adding a great sense of depth but also an added realism to those effects.

Unfortunately, it’s also quite true that such incredible visuals only exasperate the simplicity and predictability of its story- albeit such issues are possibly as much to do with the original source material (based on a series of books by author Philip Reeve) as anything the film-makers are guilty of. I think its quite possible that the huge expense of the intricate detail and care and conviction in its making (and of its visuals) works against the film, considering the narrative shortcomings – its something just as true of this years Alita: Battle Angel and 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: both were impressive visually and both were hampered by issues of plot, drama and characterisation. I think I actually preferred Mortal Engines of the three, and there’s obviously many other cinematic cousins that I could mention, like the live-action Ghost in the Shell. Its also far better than that Solo movie that tanked last year. It is evident that compared to the old days when the original Star Wars trilogy stood apart from most other genre films, these days all film-makers seem to have an incredible toy box to play with.  What distinguishes them isn’t so much the execution now, as the quality of the story and narrative arcs, characterization, tension, drama etc., elements which modern blockbusters aren’t particularly famous for. Studios seem to be mired in a no-mans land of late, of creating big spectacular films for the biggest, commonest denominator, comfortably familiar stories that try to woo instead with bigger and more beautiful visuals- but so many are doing it now that those visuals just aren’t enough anymore.

mort2Mind, the relative failure/struggles at the box office, of, say, Blade Runner 2049 which coupled big productions values and visuals with a thoughtful and actually rather complex plot seems to indicate that the mystery of what makes a successful film that isn’t a caped crusader caper is as confounding as ever.

So anyway, I really quite enjoyed Mortal Engines, and was pleasantly relieved to find that its a pretty much standalone adventure that doesn’t hint at better stories to follow or leave many threads hanging in the air to infuriate me on subsequent viewings. I’m certain as the book series it is based on numbers at least four books that I know of, that it was intended to serve as the launch of another franchise but thankfully such cynical thinking doesn’t seem to have impacted on the final result: the film ends with an ending, not a tease for something next.

mortal2And it really does look gorgeous on 4K UHD. I’ve read that the film was shot in 8K and finished in genuine 4K so isn’t the usual 2K upscale (not there’s much wrong with that, really, but you can see the difference here). Admittedly I come from the era of dodgy matte lines and fixed-camera compositing that plagued (which seems the wrong word, as ILMs work in the 1970s/1980s wowed us immeasurably back in the day) pre-computer imaging so all of this modern effects wizardry likely impresses me more than many and yes, seduces me into forgiving-mode somewhat. But in any case, the artistry involved in the intricate design work in this film, which harks back to stuff like Brazil and other Gilliam fantasies, which is great, is almost beyond eye-candy, it’s almost a piece of art in of itself. Its just gorgeous and quite bewitching. The sets are hypnotically fascinating, the visual effects mightily impressive- turn the sound down, run the film in the background, like a two-hour plus wallpaper, it’ll draw the eye and your attention just the same.

Of course, its frustrating that this film wasn’t some kind of dramatic, high-tension thrill ride with all sorts of twists and novel moments to confound and surprise. But it would seem the book/s aren’t either. Perhaps it was too faithful, I cannot say, as I haven’t read the book/s but as fantasy epics go, this was really quite enjoyable. Shame it flopped so badly really- I don’t miss the sequels that might have been but it seems ill reward for all the effort and artistry involved in putting this film together.

Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

verse1Some have described this as the best Spider-Man film yet. I’m not so sure about that- I suppose that really depends upon your own history with the character, which has been in print now for over fifty years. For myself, well I read the run from 1963 through to the late ‘seventies, from the Ditko years through to the Romita and Andru years and all had their own pros and cons. For myself, the definitive Spider-Man would be one set during the 1960s, like an episode of Mad Men sprinkled with Ditko’s noir-ish sensibilities, full of period songs and stylish fashion and design. Something like the Batman tv show but done all adult and serious. Clearly, thats never likely to happen, and Spider-Man films are made for today’s readers carrying all the baggage of the 1980s run to the present, which I’m utterly ignorant of (hence my rather clueless bemusement of the Venom film and a strange distance from much of what goes on in recent Spider-Man films- a young ‘hot’ Aunt May? Wtf?).

But you never know- if there’s one thing that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates, anything can happen.  Quite a few times while watching the film I had to ask myself if this thing was real, where it had possibly come from. Its an exciting, exhilarating, breathlessly entertaining and imaginative slice of comic-book joy. Its an absolute blast. Back when the film was announced, I wondered what the hell they were thinking of (maybe my thoughts were shadowed by memories of that awful cheesy Spider-Man animated show of the 1960s) but this thing… well, it’s quite gorgeous, and it has a witty script… its great, a real treat. Its a slice of genius really, how it manages to press some kind of ‘reset’ button on everything that’s come before it, and make everything seem so new again- it does make me wonder, infact, where the live-action Spidey movies go without seeming old-fashioned and almost redundant. I’m quite ignorant of the character of Miles Morales having his own comic-book series but I gather he does, no doubt part of all the mythology in the comic I’ve missed since I stopped reading it decades ago. I have the feeling that I had the Spider-Man of my generation, that we deserved back then, and it’s somebody else’s now. I’m fine with that, and while I’d not really be interested in reading the current comics, it’s fun to watch something like this and get a glimpse.

I’d also love to read a Spider-Man Noir book (at last Nicolas Cage is brilliant again, who’d have guessed his true destiny was self-deprecating voice casting? His career could be revitalised for years). This guy deserves a spin-off movie… but then so does Spider-Gwen; it’s part of the genius of this film, how it can appeal to so many different groups of people not naturally ‘into’ the usual Spider-Man.

Did I say it was gorgeous? Its like one of those old Motion Comics (remember them? I tried watching the Watchmen one and retired to the original book in confusion), but on steroids. Its breathtaking really, riddled with all sorts of clever touches, whether it be squiggles or comic panels and lettering, different styles, as if somehow a comic-book drawn by different artists was brought to animated life by some kind of Frankenstein cine-sorcery. I’m sure having only seen it once there’s all sorts of touches/details/geek easter-eggs (I spotted a few) that I’ll pick up on repeated viewings. Its wild and nuts and beautiful.

Its funny, DC could have done something like this with its Batman series- have the old matinee-serial b&w Batman meet up with the Adam West Batman and the Michael Keaton Batman etc. Its a funny thing how even the movie mythologies of these comic-book characters are as convoluted as the original comic ones are. I guess it’s all those years, decades going by.

Into the Spider-Verse almost makes all those reboots and remakes make sense. Maybe it’s making some kind of commentary on the industry and how all these franchises twist and turn in an effort to keep themselves relevant and topical, and, er, make lots of money. I suppose a sequel would be almost an afront, like selling-out almost..