Frank is joined with filmmaker and recurring Podcasting Them Softly co-host, Derek Wayne Johnson to discuss one of their favorite films, Tim Burton’s BATMAN. Derek also speaks on his current projects in post-production, STALLONE: FRANK THAT IS and his documentary on the original ROCKY.
Tim Burton’s Batman has to be of one of the most unique caped crusader films ever made. One villain, where in every other outing there’s a handful. A Prince soundtrack. The craziest gothic production design this side of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s one of my least favourite in the string of cinematic Batman films, probably falling somewhere under Nolan’s efforts and Burton’s superior sequel Returns, but that doesn’t mean much because on it’s own terms, it’s really something special. The aesthetic employed here is important not just in comic book films but in the realm of special effects in general. Burton carefully composes a world that reminisces on the grainy Hammer horror movies of the 50’s and infuses that with the stark trench coat noir from 30’s gangster flicks. He’s a director who has always understood that atmosphere is key above most other things in a production and it’s thick as a fog bank here. Then there’s the casting of Michael Keaton, a physically unassuming choice for Batman who seized the moody aspects of the character and took them to new introspective heights, barely uttering three words as both Bruce and Bats. The hook of this film was obviously meant to be Jack Nicholson’s rowdy, boisterous Joker, so much so that he got billing above Keaton. In a subdued, musty Gotham city, he’s the one splash of psychotic colour that stands out, a relentlessly cartoonish yet very scary ignoramus who cements the aforementioned old school gangster vibe, especially in an origin prologue where he’s just Jack Nicholson sans makeup and fanfare, which is when we see some of his best work of the film no less. Kim Basinger feeds off of Bruce’s sullenness as Vicki Vale, a news reporter and obligatory love interest, but Basinger dodges the cliche a bit and simmers underneath the sex appeal, especially when she falls into the Joker’s clutches and we see past trauma burning in her eyes, whether it’s Vicki’s or Kim’s, we’ll probably never know. Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams as a pre Two Face Harvey Dent, Pat Hingle, and Michael Gough all make vivid appearances, but I especially enjoyed Jack Palance as a nastily corrupt kingpin/politician who’s partly responsible for Nicholson’s epic caterpillar into sociopathic butterfly metamorphosis. The real star of the show here though is Gotham City itself, seemingly conjured up from the darkest shared dreams of Count Dracula and James Cagney. It’s a monumental achievement in set design that has influenced countless other projects since and serves as one of the textbook urban hellholes in cinema. This may not be my favourite Batman flick as it is for some, there’s a few things that stand out. The celebratory score by Danny Elfman, although brilliant in it’s own right, seems to clash a bit with the dingy, cobwebbed vibe of Gotham and I’m always curious how the atmosphere would have been if they went with something a bit darker. A minor quibble in an overall picture that’s a stroke of genius though. From that baroque Batmobile catching air through a giant waterfall to the inky black and deep purple silhouettes of Bats and Joker atop a cathedral loft, this film has since been engraved into legend and stands as one of the most iconic comic book flicks.
Charlton Heston’s Mother Lode is one of those neat flicks that not only is filmed in my hometown of Vancouver (like every movie ever) and the surrounding British Columbia region, but is also set there as well. It’s an entertaining, if slight little adventure story that’s perfect to put on for a rainy afternoon on the iPad. Heston, in addition to both writing and directing, plays two roles here, but it’s a bit of a sly trick saying that because he mostly appears as one, and only briefly as the other, but no matter, the old pro works his butt off to steal every scene. He plays loner mountain man Silas McGee, an eccentric prospector whose stairs don’t quite reach the attic, living alone in the wilderness looking for that perfect gold strike. The excellent Nick Mancuso, in a role originally meant for James Brolin, is Jean Dupre, a cocky bush pilot who heads McGee’s way with his high strung girlfriend (Kim Basinger), looking for a fellow pilot who got lost and a little of the gold stuff for himself while he’s at it. As soon as they run into McGee it’s clear the old dog is crazy as shit and not to be trusted, creating a nice atmosphere of isolated paranoia and mystery as the man’s true intentions come to dark light. Mancuso is always terrifically intense and so great at subtle comic moments, this is one of his great early roles and not to be missed for any fan. Poor Basinger suffered a miscarriage while production was underway and as such seems understandably distracted, but she’s a trooper and carries her end well. Heston either does a brilliant Scottish accent, a slipshod one or a bit of both, it’s hard to tell with his rapid fire banter and eloquent, robust verbosity. He’s electric though, and freaky as all hell as the type of dodgy fellow you better pray you don’t run into out there. The action is pretty run of the mill and the film loses the tautness a thriller like this should have in parts, but it’s solid enough to not change the channel. For B.C. residents it’s an absolute treat though, especially as Mancuso’s rickety float plane arcs up over the Vancouver harbour towards the Cassiar mountains and we get to see what our city looked like back in the 80’s. Cool stuff.
The Nice Guys is a torrential downpour of laughs, prat falls and lovable idiocracy, a formula which director Shane Black perfected with his super underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This one is no doubt it’s sister film, and while it has comedy in spades, top tier performances all round and luscious 1970’s production design, it’s just a we bit under-plotted. Having said that, that’s my one and only complaint about it. It’s the funniest film of the year by far, thanks to the rough and tumble pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Crowe is Jackson Healy, a mopey hired thug who will put the hurt on anyone if the dollar is right. This occupation has him cross the path of Holland March (Gosling) an ex cop PI who, according to his daughter (Angourie Rice), is the world’s worst detective. He’s certainly a buffoon, a trait which forms one half of their comedic shtick, the other being Healy’s laid back exasperation everytime March gets them into trouble, which is pretty much throughout the entire film. The two of them unwittingly stumble into a dangerous turn events involving the justice department, murder, the apparant suicide of a porn star (Margaret Qualley), a very scary assassi (Matt Bomer) and one angry goon played by an afro’d out Keith David. It’s tough to make heads or tails of what’s really going on, but like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang it’s not about the plot or the outcome, it’s more about watching the characters trip over each other in style as they get there. Crowe is terrific, a bear of a dude who’s in way over both his head, IQ and pay grade, aghast at Gosling’s antics at every turn. Gosling’s character belongs to that special class of stupid that is so clumsy that he circumnavigates his own ineptitude and ends up falling right into clues, without a clue how he got there. After a string of recent stoic introvert roles, he’s the most animated character of the film and is clearly having a ball. None of what the duo do would be possible without March’s precocious 13 year old daughter, played with uncanny ability by Rice, whose star is going to be solidly on the rise, I’d wager. A reunion of sorts occurs with the arrival of Kim Basinger as the head of the justice department, joining Crowe again after their work in L.A. Confidential. Basinger isn’t given much to do ultimately, but her presence is a welcome addition to the vibe. Black deserves kudos for his gorgeous recreation of L.A. in the 70’s, right down to the sickening lampshades pastel suits and souped up cars it’s a treat to see. The energy from Crowe and Gosling is where it’s at with this one, and they both eagerly tuck in to the dialogue, making this one groovy, delirious riot of a flick.
The finest Los Angeles film noir to ever come out of Hollywood, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a serpentine wonder, a two and a half hour parade of hard boiled detectives, sultry dames and shady dealings, all wrapped up in a multiple murder story that kicks everyone’s arc into gear, taking you places you didn’t think you’d see some of these people go. ‘Triple homicide at the nite owl’, barks the headline of a gossip rag run by a sleazy Danny Devito, and indeed the crime scene has everyone buzzing, from the shirt tuckers in the highest ranks of the LAPD, to the burly brass knuckle wearers on the brutish task force. Something is amiss with the case, and Sgt. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is a dogged straight arrow with a nose for corruption. He isn’t quite the formidable force needed to barge down certain doors or break certain bones though, and that’s where Det. Bud White (Russell Crowe) comes into play. The two are initially at each other’s throats following a cleanse of many of the department’s corrupt officers, spurred by Exley himself. It soon becomes clear that they have no choice but to work together, in order to smoke out the evil source of the crime, which may be closer to home than anyone thought. Crowe and Pearce were not the stars they are now back then, but came up from the farm league in sensational style, barging onto the Hollywood scene in shotgun toting, shit kicking style. Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her poised, complex turn as a call girl who works for a pimp named Pierce Patchett (a glib David Strathairn), an eccentric who pays surgeons to deck his girls out to look like movie starlets. My favourite performance in the film comes from a diabolical James Cromwell as Captain Dudley, a dangerous rogue who you don’t want to cross for fear of his unpredictability. Kevin Spacey is all style and self loathing as Jack Vincennes, a media mogul of a cop who advises on TV shows and hogs the press limelight like a boorish politician. The supporting cast is all across the board, including work from Simon Baker, Graham Beckel, Tomas Arana, Ron Rifkin, Brenda Bakke, Jack Conley and an amusing cameo from Paul Guilfoyle as Mickey Cohen. Adapting a novel by the great undisputed king of LA noir, James Ellroy, Hanson weaves a deadly web of sensation, intrigue and steamy goings on that never follows a readily discernable pattern of narrative, and constantly has tricks up it’s sleeves. Remember Rollo Tomassi.
Cool World is known, by those few who may be aware of its existence, as the ‘other’ film in which live action characters inhabit the same realm as cartoons. The more famous one of course is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a glorious gem of a film that gets the acclaim, notoriety and long lasting attention, as it well should. (We won’t speak of a third one involving a certain moose and squirrel that really does earn it’s bad rap). Cool World is somewhat maligned as the black sheep of the two, and in some people’s eyes (Ebert laid a stern smackdown on it) downright hated on. It’s no doubt very different from Roger Rabbit, which is admittedly the better film and the easier one to like and relate to. But this one is brilliant in its own right, at least for me. I love the way it uses a sombre tone with its human creations to throw a unique light on them as soon as the Toons show up. It’s quaint and wonderfully inaccessible, with some scenes existing purely of a need to showcase a stream of consciousness type style that doesn’t so much halt the proceedings, as give them their own surreal flavor. Brad Pitt is Frank Harris, victim of a jarring post war tragedy and thrown headlong into the cartoon world, eventually finding himself a Detective in their realm. Outside in our world, lonely cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne is a sly choice for the role) falls in love with one of his creations, a blonde bombshell named Holli Would (voiced and later played in the flesh by Kim Basinger). Holli is as devious as she is gorgeous, and works to use Jack’s attraction to her as a conduit to escape into our world. Pretty soon a deafening cacophany of cartoon creatures in all shapes, sizes and colours floods out of their dimension and into ours, creating quite the cosmic mess for Pitt to clean up. It’s fun without being too zany, the overblown fuss of the Toons contrasted by a glum human world, reeling from the war and unexpecting of such an event to unfold. Granted, the meshing of the two dimensions isn’t given the precise, big budget fanfare and cutting edge methods of Roger Rabbit, but the world building and special effects here are still pure enchantment and offer a dazzling level of entertainment. Pitt is stoic with flinty sparks of boyish charm, Byrne hilariously plays it dead straight, and Basinger is dead friggin sexy. She steals the show especially as Holli in human form, having a ball with the bubbly bimbo trying to keep a straight face in the real world. The Toons in general really are a diverse bunch, ranging from animals to inanimate objects to tiny little formless cutesy blobs and everything in between, filling their frames with a chaotic, detailed miasma worthy of Studio Ghibli. Lot of hate floating around for this one. You won’t find any from me, I love the film, and accept it for the adult friendly, experimental oddity it is. Great stuff.
For our second episode in the Gary Young Series, we sat down and discussed Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN, Curtis Hanson’s LA CONFIDENTIAL and both of those films influences on the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE. We had a blast, hope you guys enjoy!