Party like it’s 1989: Always

always2Always is a film out of time. It felt out of time in 1989, and it feels only more so now. There’s a sense of witnessing a cinematic folly throughout. Its a self-indulgent Spielberg, a misguided ode to Hollywood of old, films that threw up escapist fairytales, the dream theatres of old providing escape from the harsh real world. Films still do that now, and they did in 1989, but not like Always. Always wears the mark of being ‘old-fashioned’ and sweetly sentimental like some kind of badge of honour.

Which is not to suggest there’s nothing to like here. Always looks gorgeous – breathtakingly so at times- with some absolutely phenomenal cinematography by Mikael Salomon, who incredibly also had The Abyss out in the same year. There’s something larger than life, something rather exaggerated about it which suits its old Hollywood sensibility.  I used to have the film on VHS, which really struggled with the vivid colours of the fires etc, but on Blu-ray the film really shines, indeed quite often while watching it I commented how beautiful it looked. There’s fine grain and the detail is quite exceptional in places, there’s a real sense of depth to the image. The film features some incredible real-world pyrotechnics and some really quite remarkable visual effects and miniatures.  The film also has some really fine performances in front of the camera too, with some moments that might raise the hairs on the back of your neck, they are that good: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Audrey Hepburn, it’s quite a cast, and sometimes they really shine.

Of course, Always feels like an old movie because its based on one- its a remake of a Spencer Tracy 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, which I’ve never seen. Its set during the Second World War in which Tracy’s war-pilot is killed in action is sent back down to Earth to guide a rookie pilot who meets (and falls for) the dead pilots love. Always transplants the story to 1989 and aerial forest fire-fighters, but always struggles to suspend audience disbelief. The characters seldom feel like real people, they always seem like characters from old movies.

When I first saw Always, back in 1989, it was during a matinee  one midweek afternoon and the screen was deserted- I may even have been on my own. I remember I was at a pretty low point in my life back then, and sometimes it’s important to qualify what we think of films by explaining the connections we made with them originally. I saw Always around the time that I first saw The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and both films are poignant reminders for me of that time, place, mood. Prisoner is a far better movie, but thirty years later both films are like old companions and feel important to me. Always seemed a little special because it has Richard Dreyfuss in the starring role, and he had starred in a few of my favourite movies growing up (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). At the time I was unaware of his personal issues and it seemed such a rarity, seeing him in a film again, that I was rooting for him and the movie.  

always1Always doesn’t really work- its an ill-judged film in many ways and its ending in particular feels oddly rushed and awkward, almost like its a tacked-on ending as bad as the theatrical cut of Blade Runner had in 1982. I would imagine its just being faithful to the 1943 original, but even if it worked in A Guy Named Joe, maybe Spielberg should have felt the need to revise it, because it just feels wrong. Holly Hunter walks over to Brad (the less said the better) Johnson and Dreyfuss’s ghost shrugs and walks off into the worst matte shot in the whole film. The edits feel too tight, the visuals rough, the timing of the music doesn’t seem to match… I don’t know. Its probably not a reshoot but it feels like one.  In spite of that I rather enjoyed the film, almost reluctantly swept up by its old Hollywood charm and sentiment. And the music. I loved the music. Its one of my favourite scores by John Williams: the maestro in romantic, sentimental mode with nods to his Americana sweep of Superman: The Movie.

Bless him, Williams does his best to lift the film and his score actually works some magic in places, moments that are spellbinding in that way that Spielberg/Williams collaborations most often were. But I don’t know if its the film’s leaning towards source music -lots of songs in this film- but the score often feels relegated to the background, more than a typical Spielberg/Williams film and the film suffers from it, mainly resulting in a lack of identity or ‘voice’. I remember buying the soundtrack album at the time and it being, as typical of the time, half songs and half score, pretty much (I expect the vinyl version -yeah, this film is that old- literally was songs on side A, score on side B (actually I just looked, and it was songs plus two score tracks on side A, the remainder of score on side B)).  

Watching it again now, I’d love to hear Spielberg’s thoughts of this film, whether he was satisfied with it -hell, he possibly thought it was brilliant and everything he hoped it would be- or if he would like to have done things differently or regretted the ending or something. I’m not certain he has ever voiced his feelings about his films -he never does commentaries- but I’d be fascinated to know. Always is generally considered one of his misfires, and it clearly doesn’t really work the way he intended it to. It isn’t a bad film, but it just feels ‘off’. I’d love to know if Spielberg feels like he failed, or what he got wrong. Or if he adores it as a personal favourite and the hell with what everyone thinks.

So Always is this weird film. Some of it is really sophisticated, with gorgeous cinematography and lighting, great actors and fine production design, a lovely score, but it just doesn’t work, hampered mostly by a clunky script that possibly adheres too strongly to the original film its based on (I really should watch that film). Films that fail likely teach its creative teams a great deal -or at least I’d like to think so- and maybe Spielberg became a better director because of it. I have to admit, I quite enjoyed rewatching it, even though it is so out of time that the film seemed rather older than the thirty years it is.

 

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.

 

Party like it’s 1989

I’m always slightly amused by studios and/or their marketing departments focusing so much on anniversaries when releasing or re-releasing films on disc. I’d buy a copy of Alien on 4K disc whatever year it came out, it doesn’t have to be the film’s fortieth anniversary, but hey ho, there you go. So anyway, this year we seem to be getting reminded of certain film’s 30th anniversaries this year- The Abyss appears to be getting a new 4K scan or master for release later this year (originally released 9th August 1989, I guess it will slip a bit later than that for a disc release in the Autumn), and Field of Dreams is getting a 4K disc release in May. Unannounced but surely coming is Tim Burton’s Batman, another film from 1989 (looking back, I always feel like 1989 was the year of Batman– it was all over the place in the media, a huge ‘event’ film in the same way Star Wars was). Before all these, Pet Sematary gets a 4K release next week, partly due to its thirtieth anniversary but also thanks to an incoming remake/reboot (hey, before you watch the new one, here’s the old one to watch first so we can make a bit more money out of it).

So anyway, its been getting me a little nostalgic for 1989, which on the face of it never occurs to me as a great year for films, but now that I think of it (and consider those 4K disc/Blu ray release schedules) I have to admit, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year at all. I used to go to the cinema quite a bit back then, and can vividly recall shedding a tear or two to Field of Dreams (in a good way, it’s not as if it was a terrible film or anything, I’d reserve that kind of emotional reaction to something like Black Rain), and coming out of a matinee screening of The Abyss into a full-blown storm, torrential rain lashing across the cineplex car-park in a tempestuous gale that was like I’d brought the film out there with me, one of those disorientating moments that last with you forever.

I remember watching Born on the Fourth of July and Glory on the same day. We went to see Born on the Fourth of July in the afternoon, went home to have a chip tea then went back in the evening to see Glory. Now, the funny thing about that was, we all expected July to be the better film, but were totally amazed by Glory, really swept up by it. It had a phenomenal score by James Horner, and a great score is something I always react to in films, no doubt a big part of why I enjoyed it so much. Another film I saw at the cinema that year with a great score was The ‘Burbs, and I remember scouring record stores looking for that soundtrack for months in vain. Yeah, it was a good year for soundtracks, as I recall, though it would take years for me to finally get a copy of The ‘Burbs score on disc.

Not every cinema trip was as thrilling, mind. 1989 was also the year of Star Trek V: The FInal Frontier, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and, yes, Black Rain, and The Fly 2. Not films I recall really enjoying at all. I remember coming out of Pet Sematary more impressed by the music than the film- I bought the Varese CD and years later the La La Land expansion, but never actually saw the film itself again at all. It was also the year of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film I enjoyed at the time but has really worn thin on me over the years since. Its a funny thing, how films you were once wowed by later lose their charm, but films you didn’t ‘get’ the first time around sneak up on you (Munchausen is such a crazy maddening folly of a film I eventually couldn’t help but fall in love with it).

Thirty years, though- scary. Mind, I was looking up both Glory and Born on the Fourth of July online and they were released in December 1989 in the States, and it certainly wasn’t December when I saw them, so suspect it was later in 1990 when I saw them that day over here in the UK- release dates could be really staggered back then. After so many years it’s hard to remember very clearly, although I can remember sitting in the cinema at the time and looking over at my mate Andy after Glory ended, both of us shell-shocked by having watched not just two war films at the cinema that same day, but two damn good films at that.  It would never happen again- it’s funny sometimes, you just never know, in the moment, just how special/unusual or unique a day really is. They just come and go but perspective lends us clarity- and thirty/twenty-nine years, whatever it is, it’s certainly some kind of perspective.