Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2005) Part 1

11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Debate rages over when Tim Burton lost it. At what point exactly did Burton stopped being one of the more interesting mainstream filmmakers and become just another work-horse director that cranked out highly profitable but deeply dull studio products? Most place the “Planet of the Apes” remake as the turning point but this discounts the mature, focused “Big Fish.” No, the film that signaled the change, that shows when Mr. Burton stopped being himself and started making movies that aren’t very good, is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a movie that produces a viscerally negative reaction in me every time I watch. To quote the late Roger Ebert, I hate this movie.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” purported not to be a remake of the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” but, instead, a “reboot.” The new film was supposed to be closer in plot and tone to Roald Dahl’s original book. Considering Dahl hated the original, as he hated most things, his estate was highly protective of the rights, resulting in a drawn out pre-production that cycled through many directors and leading men before coming to Burton and Depp. However, all the talk of “rebooting” and fidelity to the source material was for naught. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It follows the exact same plot outline, even directly quoting several lines of dialogue from the original. The differences between the two movies are the work of the screenwriter and do not originate in Dahl’s text. The filmmaker’s intentions might appear to be noble but are strictly about cashing in on a recognized premise.

The most obvious change between the mutual Chocolate Factories is Burton’s version is possessed of a shrill sense of humor. For example: Upon arriving at the factory, the kids and their parents are greeted not by Wonka but by a display of singing, dancing robotic puppets. They sing an inane song about Wonka before fireworks go off. Several of the puppets catch on fire. The rubber burns off the mechanical skeletons in a disturbing, frightening fashion. Their song slows down to a freakish crawl. The movie never stops to recognize how fucking creepy this is. Instead, it seems delighted by it, as we are later greeted to a puppet “burn ward.” This is far from the only example of the film’s overwhelming shrillness. When leaping out of bed, Uncle Joe lets out an obnoxious “whoopee!” There’s an incredibly loud moment when fireworks are shot out of machine guns. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” isn’t funny and it’s attempts to be are incredibly off-putting.

Worst yet is the movie’s entirely unwarranted sense of self-superiority. The “Charlie” story brings out Burton’s worst tendencies for cruel, cynical, detached irony. This is, unfortunately, ingrained into the story’s DNA. Charlie is inherently superior to the other children and his kind behavior is in contrast to his selfish, stupid peers. However, Burton and screenwriter John August pushes this too far. Augustus Gloop is not just a glutton but a monstrous, disgusting over-eater, rampaging through the Wonka Candyland like Godzilla rampages through Tokyo. Violet Beauregard has been re-imagined as a suburban overachiever, flaunting her sense of superiority with an extensive collection of meaningless trophies. Her gum chewing, her original main attribute, has been pushed aside. She wears the same blue tracksuits as her mother, connecting her with the stereotype of the hollow, perfectionist suburban mom. The remake emphasizes the wealth of the Salt family. Veruca Salt is no longer just a spoiled, entitled cunt but now the face of the 1 percent. Weirdly, this makes her far less interesting. The kid who gets it the worse is Mike Teevee. The original Mike was precocious and obnoxious in his obsession with television. But at least you didn’t hate him. This new Mike is a fucking monster. Once again, he thinks he’s better then everyone else and constantly parrots facts like they're gospel. His television fascination has been traded out with an obsession with violent video games, because of course it has. All of the kids are dead-eyed little monsters, starring at the factory not with awe but detached boredom. The whole batch was born rolling their eyes. Mike Teevee even actively destroys the wonder of the factory but stomping on the giant candy. The original “Willy Wonka” was characterized by a childlike wonder. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a children's film that hates children.

This hatred for children is apparent in another way. One of the things that is endlessly fascinating about 1971’s “Willy Wonka” is that the story’s darkness simmers just under the surface. It appears to be a safe kid’s flick but is actually a deeply twisted morality tale. 2005’s “Charlie” shoves the darkness to the forefront. In the original, there was a comical whimsy when the bad kids were dispatched. Burton shoots the same scenes like miniature horror movies. Augustus Gloop is flooded up to his chin in chocolate in a way that brings a graphic, disturbing drowning to mind. Violet Beauregarde doesn’t just puff up into a cute blueberry. Instead, she violently and grotesquely expands, in a way sure to delight internet inflation fetishist. The movie trades out golden egg laying goose for nut-cracking squirrels, mostly so it can make crude jokes about “nuts.” When the squirrels attack Veruca, they very nearly gnaw and rend her flesh. Instead, the squirrels spread her legs in a repulsive and wholly unnecessary rape reference. When Mike Teevee is shrunk down, he is battered across several television stations, nearly crushed by the Oompa-Loompas several times. Unlike the Wilder version, this movie maintains the scene of kids leaving the factory, still alive. Showing their mutilated forms is actually far worst then implying their deaths. Violent bending like an alien in a Tool video or Mike transformed into Judge Doom post-steamroller is far creepier then the audience just assuming they’re dead.

For all the grim darkness Burton shovels into the movie, he seemingly wimps out in other ways. Instead of going nuts during the boat sequence, he instead reduces the scene to a lame roller coaster ride. The movie’s entirely cynical approach removes any lightness or whimsy from the story. The candy land set is impressive, looking like a Dr. Seuss illustration brought to life. However, Burton shoots with no sense of wonder. Instead, it’s simply a set and one heavily assisted by CGI, at that. When the movie goes for jokes that aren’t needlessly mean-spirited, the results are lame and limp. A lame pun about “whipped cream” is visualized and a pointless reference to “2001” is hammered into the viewer’s head.

If Gene Wilder was the heart of the original film, Johnny Depp is the simpering, hollow, dung-infested soul of this piece-of-shit remake. At the time of release, there was some controversy over Depp patterning his performance after Michael Jackson, drawing gross parallels between the Chocolate Factory and Neverland Ranch. However, Depp is only superficially imitating Jackson. Instead, his Wonka acts like a sad man-child with Aspergers. He’s socially awkward, reading off of cue cards when questions make him uncomfortable. He displays repeated verbal tics, chattering “Yeah” after his sentences. He has zero interest in anything other people say. Depp makes Wonka a deeply unlikable character, one that is totally alienated from the rest of the world. The Burton-esque Outsider has been extended to its extreme, coming off as entitled and obnoxious.

The film is a terrible example of mid-two-thousands reboot-itis. Even Willy Wonka is given an origin story. And it’s as groan-inducing and mind-numbingly dumb as possible. We discover that Wonka’s desire to make chocolate is because his father was a strict dentist that banned candy from his house hold. This embarrassingly Freudian origin is explained through flashback sequences that interrupt the main story at random intervals. The awkwardly grafted-on origin story is not the only way the film overexplains everything. An intrusive voiceover wedges in several time, providing some pointless exposition that adds nothing to the film.

In the original story, the Oompa-Loompas are pygmies, living in happy servitude. A deeply un-PC move like that wouldn’t fly even in 1971 and certainly wouldn’t happen in 2005. However, the new Oompa-Loompas aren’t orange-faced gnomes. Instead, short actor and Burton regular Deep Roy plays all of the workers, for no explained reason. At first, I figured they were all clones or something. But, nope, the movie maintains Loompaland, giving us a look at the Oompa-Loompas in their native habitat. Despite giving lip service to distancing itself from the ’71 version, these Loompas still sing. And, holy God, is it terrible. Catchy, sing-along show tunes have been traded out for obnoxious pop songs. Each sequence is done in a different style. Augustus Gloop gets a simpering pop number. Violet gets a hugely embarrassing funk riff. Veruca is sent off with a lame attempt at sixties psychedelia. Worst yet, is Mike Teevee’s exit to eighties hair metal. The music is terrible and the lyrics are insultingly shallow. As potentially weird as dwarfs in orange face paint was, an army of identical Deep Roys in fascistic jump suits is far more unnerving.

Dahl reportedly hated the 1971 film because Charlie wasn’t the main character. This assumption is ignorant of a fairly large flaw in the original text. Charlie is the least interesting character in the story. He’s unfailing goodness is a thin personality in comparison to the wild bad kids. Here, Freddie Highmore’s Charlie mostly sits on the sidelines, watching things happen to the other characters. His compassion for his family comes off more as a result of living in poverty for so long.

After over one hundred minutes of cynicism and shrillness, the movie goes for implausible sincerity in its final act. After surviving the tour, Charlie refuses the offer of the chocolate factory. Why? Because it would remove him from his family. His family that has barely been in the movie up to this point. Before an agreement is met, Willy reconciles with his own father, rediscovering the importance of family. The majority of the film does not explore the theme of family in any way. It’s a forced-in, unrelated moral that does nothing but add another fifteen minutes to a movie that is already too long and extends the story far past its logical conclusion.

So do I like anything about the movie? For all its problem, Burton at least maintains his trademark visual sense. The palette is more colorful but spirals are ever present. The Bucket home leans at an angle, the director once again showing his love of Expressionistic film. Probably the best moment in the film is a brief flashback to Wonka’s childhood Halloween. The black buildings, glowing jack o’lanterns, and kids in costumes are essential Burton-esque imagery and the director clearly relishes it. I may not care for the film around it but the director’s strong eye for set design remains strong. A few of the jokes actually land, like the cotton candy sheep or a crack about improvisation.

Is comparing “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” fair? Probably not. However, that’s the main problem with bad remakes. All they make you really want to do is re-watch the original. The film not only betrays the spirit of the source material but it also shows Burton and Depp’s interest curdling into something ugly. The movie grossed a lot of money upon release but isn’t discussed much today, which is the correct reaction. [Grade: D-]

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 24: Monster Bash 2014

Here I am rushing out another episode of the podcast at the end of the month. Usually, when I venture to a horror convention (with JD, aka Mr. Mash, usually in attendance), I do a big write-up of the con. However, seeing as how Monster Bash in Mars, PA, took place smack dab in the middle of summer, I didn't feel the need to. Detailed, written con reports really feel like an autumn tradition, don't they? So here's a short podcast instead.

And it is short, at just under a half hour. We got to meet Julie Adams, Ricou Browning, and Joel Hodgeson, all of whom were pretty cool. We spent a lot of money movies, many of which I will probably be reviewing come September and October. It was a good time. Our next episode will be better.

Anyway, the Tim Burton report card will continue tomorrow. Probably.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Recent Watches: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Fantasy (1971)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” started out as a purely mercenary effort that wound up being a classic anyway. The film came about because producer David L. Wolper was working with Quaker Oats on new ways to promote a candy bar they wanted to make. Deciding a film based around a chocolate factory would be a great tie-in, Wolper talked Quaker Oats into funding the movie. It’s a famous anecdote that when the Wonka Bars made it out, they actually melted on the shelf . It’s probably just as well because “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” gained a legacy extending far pass selling some candy bars.

During my recent review of “James and the Giant Peach,” I referred to Roald Dahl as the Children’s Author Who Didn’t Fuck Around. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a far more whimsical then “James” but concern similar themes. Both stories feature a down-on-their luck child protagonist. Both James and Charlie struggle with adversity. Both stories pile on fantastic settings and wish fulfillment. In the end, both boy protagonists succeed through the sheer goodness within them. Despite both Charlie and James being good kids, they live in immensely cynical worlds. The outside world of “Wonka” is filled with greedy, obnoxious, mean-spirited, and stupid people. The magical factory is presented as a respite from the shit hole the rest of the world is.

Of course, the Chocolate Factory is hardly free from danger. Over the years, the movie has actually become infamous for how creepy and dark it can be. The factory tour is actually a test of morals for the children. All of the exaggerated, awful little shits are exterminated throughout the tour, mostly through their own stupidity and assholery. Augustus Gloop is sucked up into a giant pipe, shot through it by pressurized chocolate. Violet Beauregard’s body expands out into a giant blueberry. Veruca Salt falls down a shaft into an incinerator, her father following after. Mike Teevee has his atom tore apart, shot through space, and reassembled at a smaller level. Is this a kid’s movie or a horror film? Of course, Wonka mentions how all the children will be put back to normal and a scene showing just that was originally planned. However, I don’t know if I believe Willy. I think those fucking kids are as dead as dog shit. This doesn’t mention other bizarre, dark elements like the psychedelic boat ride through a tunnel or Charlie and Uncle Joe almost being torn apart by giant fan blades.

The darkness of the film has actually been over-exaggerated over the years, with Wonka sometimes being imagined as a Satanic figure, tempting the children with chocolate and punishing them when they fall for it, the Chocolate Factory as a Garden of Earthly Delights. In truth, Wonka is more of a weird, Old Testament father figure. He upholds the moral certitude, rewarding those that are good and those that are bad. Of course, Roald Dahl had extremely peculiar ideas of what was bad behavior. All of the bad kids are obnoxious but none of them deserve their grisly fates. Augustus is a glutton, Violet is a bit of a nasty gossip, Mike is obsessed with TV. Even Veruca, easily the most despicable of the lot, is only an entitled proto-bitch. Ultimately, the kids are being punished for being snitches and talking to Slugworth. (Slugworth is a sinister figure, his German accent suggesting a Nazi and the way he corners the kids suggesting a child molester.) The truth is Roald Dahl was criticizing behavior he found annoying, like chewing gum all the time or preferring television to reading. It’s not exactly the most subtle, or deep, of commentaries, especially since the Oompa-Loompas spell the morals out. I guess my point is there’s a lot of weird, fucked-up shit beneath the surface here.

The darkness in the film was perhaps introduced to temper the whimsy at its heart. The film is ultimately a story of childhood wish fulfillment, of a little boy proving purer then his peers and receiving endless rewards for it. Even though Dahl criticizes gluttony, the Chocolate Factory is a glutton’s dream. The production design and the sets are incredible. The candy room, with its river of chocolate and giant gummi bears growing on trees, is one of the most fully formed cinematic settings this side of Oz. It’s all edible, even the flowers, which form perfect little teacups. Other sets are impressive too, like the room covered in black and white stripes (No wonder Tim Burton would remake this!), the sterile white shrinking room, or Wonka’s office, with all the furniture cut in half. The film widely depended on the Factory being sold as a fantastic alternate universe, which the movie wildly succeeds at.

The amazing set design has a lot to do with it but Gene Wilder probably deserves the most credit for the film’s iconic status. Wilder brings a true amount of quirkiness to the part. He tumbles on-screen. He interjects foreign language phrases into his speech. Wilder’s delivery is incredibly spaced out. He makes Willy Wonka a truly otherworldly character, a playful, whimsical edge to every line of dialogue he says. It’s easy to buy Wonka as a moral decider since Wilder’s performance is so fantastic. The other actors in the film are good, especially the super bitchy Julie Down Cole or the spry Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe. Even a solid performance, like Peter Ostrum as Charlie, is overshadowed by Wilder’s incredible work.

Roald Dahl, not an easy to satisfy man, wasn’t pleased with the final film, mostly because it was a musical. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate” was one of the last big musicals to come from a major studio, just as the formally evergreen genre was dying out in the early seventies. Much of the music has become iconic. And rightfully so. “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” is a great, lively number, perfectly capturing the moment when a child is happy. (And how infectious that happiness can be, when Grandpa Joe leaps out of bed for a reprise.) “Pure Imagination” is easily the best song in the film, Wilder’s soft delivery and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s perfectly whimsical lyrics and music combining to make a classic. Oompa-Loompa song is the big sing-along number in the film, one of the few times when the film’s otherwise stale direction comes to life with great choreography. If it wasn’t for the catchy Oompa-Loompa song, “I Want It Now!” would easily be the most memorable song in the film. Cole’s absolutely venomous delivery of the lines is incredible. The only song in the movie that isn’t memorable is the maudlin “Cheer Up, Charlie,” a soft, slow number that drags the pacing down.

The iconic elements of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” are good enough that its easy to overlook the weaker parts. The first act is incredibly slow moving and the movie doesn’t truly come to life until the kids get to the factory. Some of the performances are pretty exaggerated and not always in a good way. The ending is a non-entity, the story clamoring to a halt after Charlie is the last kid standing. Still, I count myself as a Wonka fan because of Wilder’s great performance, the catchy songs, and surprisingly potent, dark undertones. [8/10]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 43: The Nerd Vomits Back

Here's another episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show.

After working so hard on putting out themed shows through the last three months, we essentially have taken June off. Like three weeks ago we recorded this, a loose Nerd Vomit episode where we talk about a nerdy shit. The next episode will be about a con JD and I went to last Saturday. That'll be coming soon.

Also I wrote a book which you can buy here. I planned on doing a more formal announcment and will add a banner here in the near future. Really. Promise.

Anyway, the Tim Burton Director Report Card will continue tonight. Sort of. Kind of. I'm not really committed to it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2003)

10. Big Fish

After making the financially successful, if critically derided, “Planet of the Apes,” perhaps Tim Burton was looking for a more personal project for his next film. Originally groomed for Steven Spielberg, “Big Fish” is not your typical Tim Burton movie. The story is grounded in real life concerns such as the death of the parent. The visual design is much more muted, without Burton’s trademark expressionistic angles. Yet beneath the surface, “Big Fish” is rife with Burton-esque motifs and themes.

All his life, Will Bloom has heard the fantastic tall tales of his father, Edward. He hasn’t believed them for years and now considers his father a liar and a sham. Upon hearing that dad is ill with terminal cancer, Will flies back home, pregnant wife in tow, in hopes of connecting with his father one last time. On his death bed, the elder Bloom shares his stories one last time. While attempting to get at the truth behind the tales, Will discovers more of his father’s stories are true then he ever expected.

At first, “Big Fish” appears to be a departure in the director’s career. The film’s framing device is incredibly down to Earth, seemingly to contrast more with the tall tales the characters tell. This is different from the usual Burton style, where the whole movie is set in a world just removed from reality. Secondly, the color palette is different then the director’s usual. Instead of gloomy blacks, greys, and whites, “Big Fish” is a film awash in warm oranges, sunny yellows, and and sky blues. The interiors of homes are usually an Earthy green, recalling lake water. “Big Fish” doesn’t necessarily look like Tim Burton movie.

Save for a few isolated moments of Burton style. The time the director’s usual quirks come to the surface most blatantly is during an early story. A group of children hike into the swamp to visit a spooky witch in a dilapidated mansion, whose glass eye predicts the future. As expected, this sequence is typically dark, thanks to the swamp setting, and gothic, thanks to the strange old home. Later on, while exploring the woods, young Edward Bloom finds himself in two scary scenarios. The first involves the gnarled branches of trees, seemingly alive, reaching out for him, holding him back. The second involves a huge hollow filled top to bottom with spider webs. The director’s continued fascination with the circus climaxes here. A clown in stripped pajamas and a giant in a black and white box are the only time the director’s trademark visual makes an appearance here. Finally, the circus storyline concludes with Edward encountering a werewolf… A werewolf that is actually quite friendly and only wants to play a game of fetch. Fleeting horror elements like these are the biggest indicators that “Big Fish” is a Burton film.

Yet a look beneath the surface confirms “Big Fish” as a Burton movie through and through. The entire tone is directed by the filmmaker’s preference for whimsy and underlined by a meloncholey wave of loss and grown-up cynicism. Edward Bloom’s quest to find himself in the world frequently paints him as a Burton-esque outsider, somebody who must struggle to be accepted into a new world. Finally, the director’s shooting style is dually present and accounted for. “Big Fish” is shot in wide, expressive frames. From the beginning, we see the senior Bloom centered in the middle of a river, fishing. Both towns of Ashton and Spectre are frequently framed by looking down long pathways, picturesque buildings on both sides. My favorite shot in the film is a brief one near the end, when a bright red Charger pulls atop a hill, a tree next to it. A closer look reveals that the director’s fingerprints are all over the picture.

The original novel by Daniel Wallace is widely episodic, making it a tricky choice to adapt. Screenwriter John August takes the approach of framing a more down-to-Earth story around Bloom’s tall tales. Will and his wife get to know his father and watch his health deteriorate. Later, Will travels to Spectre, eager to find the truth behind his father’s stories. For long stretches, the framing device is interrupted by Bloom’s tales, each one usually narrated by a different character. This structure allows the tall tales to comment on and feed into the plot’s development and themes. It’s a clever way to get around the episodic problem, as each story segment advances the plot in some way.

“Big Fish” is also a rich screenplay with several themes on its mind. The film is primarily concerned with the reconciliation between father and son. Will Bloom says early on in the film that he never saw much of himself in his father. Though captivated by his father’s tall tales as a young child, he quickly grows tired of them. Soon, he realizes that the real man could never match up to the fantasy. Yet the film is largely about him realizing that’s okay. The climatic scene has Will spinning his own outrageous yarn about his father’s death and tying together many of the film’s most memorable moments. The son inherits his father’s ability for storytelling and, in doing so, comes to terms with his father’s life. The film is ultimately about accepting loved ones, flaws and all, and carrying a piece of them with you forever. Both Burton and August had both lost parents not long before working on this film. The story obviously reflects on both of them accepting their own fathers’ deaths.

The film has other things on its mind. While outside of Spectre, Edward Bloom sees a naked woman floating in the lake. He tries to pursue her but the strange woman is gone before he catches up to her. This occurs days before he meets the woman he immediately recognizes as his future wife. For the next two years, Edward toils while attempting to discover the true identity of the woman he loves. Before potentially committing adultery, Edward sees the lady in the water again, reminding him of his commitment to his wife. At the end, the film explicitly points out the connection between Sandra and the mysterious woman. Not only does this bring to mind stories of sirens and naiads, it also illustrates Edward as a dreamer, always on a quest with an impossible goal. Sandra and her corresponding mermaid isn’t the only woman in Edward’s life. As a child, he meets the strange witch, and is the only boy in his group not frightened of her. While in the strange town of Spectre, he meets a little girl named Jenny who is obviously crushed on him. A decade and a half later, the two meet again. Jenny still loves him and Edward is tempted to stray by the beautiful young women. He doesn’t and, as the years go on, time folds in on itself, Jenny becoming the witch. There’s a mythic quality to this subplot, two women separated widely by time becoming one and the same.

“Big Fish’ is a mythic film and, accordingly, certain archetypal concepts come up throughout the run time. Edward Bloom is presented as a man on a quest. Early on, as he comes of age, his body grows out of control, literally out of synch with his age. He quickly leaves his home, headed for glory. All sorts of adventures greet him. He meets, and befriends, a giant. While drafted into the Korean War, he parachutes behind enemy lines, karate fights some soldiers, and sneaks out of the country with a pair of Siamese twins. Later on, he’s involved in an incredibly ineffectual bank robbery, helping a friend stick up a place that was stuck up the day before. This is classic Hero’s Journey stuff, putting “Big Fish” in tradition with ancient stories.

The film also belongs to the genre of Southern Gothic. Or, rather, Southern Fantastique. Befitting a work of magic realism, the settings are seemingly realistic but fantastic things happen in them anyway. Fantasy creatures like giants, witches, werewolves, mermaids, and huge catfish inhabit the film. Magical events regularly intervene on reality. When spotting the love of his life, time stands still for Bloom. And time quickly catches up afterwards. A rain storm leads to a downfall that quickly floods the entire area. The forest is a magical place where strange, sometimes dangerous, things happen. My favorite bit of magic realism is the town of Spectre. Hidden in the woods, Spectre is seemingly perfect, where the grass is soft, the weather is always perfect, and everyone is content. The film doesn’t back away from portraying the town as a little uncanny. The residents seem a little too happy and far too eager to have Edward stay with them. Yet the movie never gives Spectre a dark secret, subverting audiences' expectations. Instead, the town is metaphorically, if not literally, heaven. When Edward first arrives, the local tell him he’s early. Those that visit are destined to return and everyone comes back to it eventually. Amusingly, the economical crunches of the seventies affect the town later in the film, causing Edward to buy it back up, rebuilding the town and preserving its innocence. In “Big Fish,” the America South is a magical place where all sorts of things can happen.

 “Big Fish” is also a romance. Edward works at a circus for two years, all to discover what Sandra’s name and location are, amusingly filling all sorts of odd jobs, such as elephant shed cleaner and human cannonball. When he does finally learn her name, he goes out of his way to earn her love. The Courtship of Sandra Bloom sequence, as its called, is one of the film’s best moments. He leaves love notes for her in class and in the sky, determined to win her heart from her current fiancĂ©. It’s a testament to the film’s charm and light touch that this never comes off as creepy. When her boyfriend discover Edward, he savagely beats him, the man taking it on the girl’s request. The beating is surprisingly brutal yet, after Sandra rejects her cruel fiancĂ©, it leaves a heart shape in the field of flowers. It helps that Sandra and Edward truly love each other, even after fifty years as is perfectly displayed in the scene where she crawls into the bath with her ill husband.

Another element in favor of “Big Fish” is its likable cast. Ewan McGregor plays the young Bloom, bringing all of his natural charm to the part. That charm is necessary to keep Bloom from ever coming off as a cad. The way McGregor reacts to the fantastic events around him, always taking them at face value, is repeatedly amusing. In the present, Albert Finney plays Edward in his old age. Finney can’t quite nail the Southern accent but is otherwise perfectly cast in the part, bringing a roguish charm to the part while maintaining his age and frailty. Billy Crudup is the last lead in the film as Will Bloom. It’s probably the hardest part, as Crudup has to remain skeptical in the face of fantastic events without coming off as obnoxious. Crudup does a good job, mostly becoming an audience surrogate, one that is asked to unbelievable accept things on faith.

As is expected of a Burton, the film’s supporting cast is filled with fantastic character actors. Jessica Lange plays Sandra in her old age, an aged woman who has to smile and shake her head at her husband’s tale. Despite his wild stories, Lange makes it obvious how much she cares for him. As the younger Sandra is Alison Lohman, an actress I’ve always considered underrated who seems to be retired from acting now. Lohman has great chemistry with McGregor and, while she widely has to smile at her husband’s antics, she’s never less then charming. Helena Bonham Carter plays the other woman in Bloom’s life, as enchanting and precocious as both a witch and a young woman needs to be. The late Matthew McGrory plays Carl, a true gentle giant who, despite his huge size, is a kind person. It’s the part that would most widely expose McGrory’s unique charm and soft-spoken talent. Burton regulars Danny DeVito and Deep Roy have bit parts as well, as the ringleader and the head clown at the circus. Steve Buscemi isn’t a Burton regular but the off-beat actor is so perfectly matched with the director’s style that it's surprising they’ve never worked together before.

“Big Fish” is probably Burton’s most personal, low-key picture, even more so then the comedic “Ed Wood.” That personal element makes it special in the filmmaker’s career. The film isn’t perfect or his best work, feeling a bit too slight and too willing to excuse some of Bloom’s worst behavior. At times, the film threatens to overdose on whimsy. However, the prime cast and a deft understanding of tone makes “Big Fish” a charming watch. It is, by far, the director’s most grounded, mature, naturalistic and disciplined film. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Director Report Card: Henry Selick (2001)

3. Monkeybone

Henry Selick’s first two films were visually spellbinding animated features and at least one of them is a genuine classic. “James and the Giant Peach” featured live action and, even if those sequence were some of the weaker moments in the film, it obviously piqued Selick’s interest. His next movie, “Monkeybone,” would be primarily live action. Starting life as an adaptation of indie comic “Dark Town,” the script eventually shifted into an entirely different project. The exceedingly strange film that followed attempted to bring Selick’s style, the illustrations of Vanessa Chong and Mark Ryden, and a seriously demented sense of humor into the real world.

The film revolves around cartoonist Stu Miley. After suffering from years of horrible nightmares and depression, Stu is finally starting to turn his life around. His comic strip “Monkeybone,” about a monkey that is representative of the milquetoast’s protagonist’s id, is about to become a cartoon and primed to be a merchandise juggernaut. More importantly to Stu, he’s about to propose to sleep study doctor girlfriend. However, a car crash puts the proposal on hold, as Stu is stuck in a coma. His mind is damned to an alternate dimension called “Down Town,” a world inhabited by coma patients and populated with monsters born of nightmares. There, Stu meets Monkeybone, his creation, and soon embarks on a wacky adventure to return to the world of the waking. Monkeybone, along with the nightmare-eating inhabitants of Down Town, have a different plan.

 “Monkeybone” is an aggressively strange movie. The film begins with an animated sequence where Stu describes being sexually excited by his elderly school teacher’s bye-bye arms. That first awkward boner would also be the first appearance of Monkeybone, a character directly linked to the protagonist’s basest desires. Upon arriving in Down Town, Stu is immediately harassed by all manner of bizarre, baffling creatures. The city is ruled over by Hypnos, the Greek god of nightmares, who is portrayed as a midget devil with shrunken legs. It says a lot that the title character is one of the least odd elements of the film. The craziness even continues after the story moves back into the realm of the living. The finale features a living corpse tossing his organs around as weapons. That “Monkeybone” was released by a main stream studio seems utterly impossible. That Fox spent 75 million on the movie, and expected it to be anything but a huge bomb, is even more baffling.

The movie is deeply, deeply flaw but there’s one thing “Monkeybone” really has going for. A movie this fucking weird is packed full of unforgettable images. The production design is out of control. Stu enters Down Town by riding on a giant, twisting roller coaster. This fits the city's design as a Carnival from Hell. Residents wander from area to area on rickety bumper cars. When coma patients awake, they exit the town by being rocket into the mouth of a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln. Down Town is actually set inside a giant mechanical hand. The world of the dead, that exists below the coma world, is even stranger. Green and sterile, it features giant grim reapers, who are nothing but huge cloth hoods, riding around on flying bicycles. Those that try to escape are locked in a cage that is actually the mouth of a huge, twisted clown face. One of the best sets in the film is the hangout of Hypnos. It’s a weird nightclub covered floor to ceiling in black and white spirals. There are so many spirals that I can only assume Selick is goofing on Tim Burton, the director he’s most associated with.

Down Town is also full of unforgettably weird creatures. Upon arriving, Stu is greeted by roadkill animals, brought to life through stop motion. There are cubic sphinxes that watch the gate. A giant headed cyclops, that hobbles around on giant knuckles, frightens Stu. A cow-man with a Picasso face runs the local bar. An elephant headed creature plays piano in tune to Monkeybone’s songs. Upon arriving in the bar, Stu almost sits on a human-headed giant termite. A bizarre Hindu-god style statue delivers the mail. Hypnos himself is a weird enough character and his girlfriend appears to be a quasi-humanoid bee girl. Each of these characters are brought to life through an unsettling mixture of puppetry, stop motion, and ungainly suits. One of the few likable characters in the film is a sexy catgirl played by Rose McGowen. Miss Kitty forms something of a crush on Stu and is the only resident of Down Town that doesn’t appear to be solely out for herself. She frees Stu from prison and attacks the mouse-man guard. Subverting the expectations we have for sexy cat girls, Miss Kitty gorily kills the mouse-man, eating him. Because in the universe of “Monkeybone,” even the nice people are demented killers.

The movie is also painfully committed to its nightmarish tone. Early on, we get a look at a painting Stu made, describing some of the nightmares he had before meeting his girlfriend. Later on, that nightmare comes to life, the character reliving it. It involves Stu being trapped as a twitching mound of body horror about to be dissected by a big-headed doctor who also has a twitching mound of body horror extending from his face. There are other nightmares too. Julie worries about Stu dying so she dreams about his body melting like a deflated balloon. The possessed Stu runs after lingerie model through a golf field before falling into a sand trap. He speaks in slow motion while Hypnos uses his head as a golf cue. Even Stu’s pet dog Buster gets a nightmare sequence. The dog dreams about being tied down while cat-humanoids, portrayed by real cats inside bizarre puppet bodies, threaten to castrate him. Each nightmare is shot in stark black and white. Each one is disturbing enough that you wonder if “Monkeybone” is even meant to be a comedy.

That inconsistent tone is one of the film’s biggest problems. The surreal dream world of Down Town being bizarre and frantic is to be expected. However, the entire film carries that crazed tone. Even before we’re launched into the weird alternate university, there’s a mean-spirited tone of exaggerated behavior running through the film. Dave Foley plays Herb, Stu’s agent, who is an exaggerated take on the sleazy agent stereotype. The car accident happens when a giant inflatable Monkeybone toy goes off in the car, blinding the passengers. In the later half of the film, the people around the Monkeybone possessed Stu are as deranged as he is. There’s no safe harbor in this movie. The waking world is as surreal and twisted as the nightmare world.

Except when it isn’t anyway. Beneath the absolute insanity of everything else happening in “Monkeybone,” the movie is trying to tell a coherent love story. Stu’s feelings for Julie are genuine and she feels the same way. His money-grubbing sister is eager to pull the plug on Stu, presumably to inherent his prospective fortune, a subplot that never really goes anywhere. Julie works overtime to prevent that from happening. When Stu awakes, now possessed by the randy monkey, Julie is understandably put off by his change in personality. Near the end, amid the organ tossing and giant clouds of monkey fart gas, Julie and the resurrected Stu attempt to have a heart-to-heart. The love story is the only element of the film that is sincere. The rest of the movie is a hateful, violently weird film full of crude humor. The romance comes off as unconvincing, compared to the rest of the film, and it doesn’t help that Brendan Fraser and Bridget Fonda have zero chemistry together. Fonda, for one, seems as baffled by the movie as the audience is.

For a film with as much insane shit happening in it as “Monkeybone,” there are surprisingly few laughs to be had. The film attempts to satirize the way artists sell out in favor of corporate merchandising. Since the film’s world is so aggressively exaggerated, it makes any satirical point impossible to take seriously. The weird is so weird and off-putting that the audience is more likely to cry then laugh at it. The “funny” scenes that most rise to the surface is the movie’s puerile obsession with fart and crude sex jokes. The possessed Stu plans to spread the nightmare gas via Monkeybone dolls that fart, a toy unlikely to pass child safety regulations. He sneaks out of bed at night in nothing but a robe, flashing his ass at the camera, and winds up kissing a chimp. Later, Dave Foley stripes down to his bare ass too, running around naked at the end. Attempted humor scenes are often underscored by the most obvious musical choices possible. A love scene between Julie and possessed Stu is at first scored to “Let’s Get it On” before Stu begins to climb the bed, “Foxy Lady” kicking in on the soundtrack. While dancing with a group of scantily clad girls, Stu sings a rendition of “Brick House.” While kissing the aforementioned chimp, “Lovin’ You” plays. It seems a seven year old made the soundtrack decisions here. There are appearances of jokes but the audience never actually laughs.

It doesn’t help that the movie horribly drags, even with its brief 94 minute run time. This is mostly the fault of the incoherent screenplay. There’s a plot but it frequently takes a backseat to the bizarre seat pieces. Essentially, the storyline is the nightmare creatures send Monkeybone back to Earth in Stu’s place in hopes that the mischievous monkey will create more nightmares, so as to feed the hungry populace of Down Town. Monkeybone intends on doing this by spreading Julie’s nightmare drug, a plot device if there ever was one, throughout the world. Stu, meanwhile, has to make it back to the waking world, stop his evil doppelganger, and save his relationship. However, this plot is buried beneath all the other insane shit that happens. We frequently forget what Monkeybone’s objective is. The villains in Down Town are never given proper characterization, so we never truly understand what their final goal is. The ending essentially shrugs off all these concerns, simply happy that the hero is reunited with his girlfriend.

There’s very few likable characters in the film. Some of this is by design. Monkeybone is obviously meant to be as obnoxious as possible. The character was probably meant to be lovably mischievous, a funny troublemaker. However, the mean-spirited tone of the film, combined with his lasciviousness, makes it impossible to like Monkeybone. He’s a hateful little shit, pure and simple. Yet even Stu is far from likable. He is such an ineffectual guy, crippled by his fears and anxieties, that you can never relate to him. The film ends with a wise character deciding that slamming the two together, to give Stu a bit of Monkeybone’s spontaneity, is the best thing to do. Perhaps the movie should have started there, instead of forcing us to watch two unlikable protagonists for most of the run time.

So does anything funny happen in “Monkeybone?” Yeah, occasionally. One of the best, and strangest jokes, is Whoopi Goldberg’s role as Death. Yes, Whoopi plays Death Herself. In a move similar to “Beetlejuice,” the afterlife is bogged down in paper work. Death orders around her incompetent army of cloth grim reapers. Stu and Monkeybones’ attempt to infiltrate the reaper army is one of the few times the film’s absurdity inspires laughter. When irritated, Death’s head explodes, forcing her assistant to retrieve a new head from a cabinet. An uncredited Thomas Haden Church plays Death’s assistant and his deadpan line-reading adds to a lot of the humor. Finally, one of the film’s best jokes comes when its revealed that Monkeybone is not the first creation to hijack its creator’s body. In a dungeon, we meet Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, Poe, and, amusingly, Stephen King who has some not-nice things to say about Cujo. That joke would have been even funnier if King had actually played the cameo himself, as originally planned, instead of the part falling to a decent impersonator.

Also providing a lot of humor is Chris Kattan’s late film appearance as the dead body Stu possesses upon re-entry into the human world. Kattan plays a deceased gymnast whose body is constantly falling apart. Kattan is a fairly terrible performer but this part, designed for exaggerated body language and gallows humor, plays to his strength. Brendan Fraser seems ideally cast as both a jee-whiz cartoonist and his cartoon creation run among. Fraser is certainly game and has no problem embarrassing himself to get a laugh. (Even if the laugh aren’t there.) A better film probably would have made better use of his talents. Finally, John Turturro voices the title character, whipping through the randy character’s bawdy dialogue with his husky accent. Monkeybone remains pungent but Turturro still dives in full force.

About the only consistently positive thing you can say about “Monkeybone” is that it is a Henry Selick movie, through and through. His visual sense informs the entire movie. More then once, his clever style of shooting livens up otherwise dull moments, like the camera moving around when Stu is signing off on various merchandising deals. “Monkeybone” is a total disaster and Selick’s utterly bizarre visuals are the only reason you keep watching. The movie’s massive financial failure probably should have meant the end of Selick’s career. And it nearly did, as he wouldn’t direct again for nine years. Notably, he’s never worked in live action since. [Grade: C-]

Monday, June 23, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2001)

9. Planet of the Apes

The “Planet of the Apes” series is one of the earliest examples of a mainstream studio spending major money on a long-running, science fiction series. The original, and a few of its sequels, are classics not just because of amazing creature effects or an iconic twist ending. The classic “Apes” series is also friggin’ weird. The films combine sci-fi action-adventure with serious social commentary, satire, goofy sight gags, and persistently downbeat endings. The series’ legendary status in pop culture, and the fact that the movies had made 20th Century Fox a lot of money over the years, made a new “Apes” movie inevitable. A series relaunch had been in development since the eighties and was, at one point, going to be produced by James Cameron, star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and feature apes playing baseball. A new “Planet” wasn't successfully created until 1999 with Tim Burton in the director’s chair. Burton’s ability to combine personal weirdness with big budget spectacle, not to mention his self-professed love of the original, made him seem like a good choice to helm a new “Apes” film. The final product didn’t hold true to that opinion. 2001’s “Planet of the Apes” is widely regarded as the lowest point in the director’s career.

The film begins in the distant future, on a space station where chimps are being trained to pilot space pods. When an ape disappears into a strange cosmic storm, head trainer Leo Davidson follows after it. After falling through the storm himself, he winds up on a strange planet where humans are enslaved as primitives and intelligent, talking apes lead a complex society. Precocious ape Ari wants to befriend the humans while Thade, a general, wants to wipe the species out. Davidson’s appearance, which has him escaping ape custody and attempting to find a way home, heats up the conflict between human and ape.

Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” has the dubious distinction of introducing the word “re-imagining” to the studio press kit world. The film is not a direct remake of any of the original films. Instead, it takes the central concept – a planet where apes rule and humans are treated as animals – and tells a different story. You would assume taking the series in a different direction, with a director with such a bold visual sensibility at the lead, would result in a very different “Apes” experience. The most disappointing thing about 2001’s “Planet” is how little of Burton’s style is in the film. Occasionally, the director captures a unique or interesting image on screen: An ape hangs upside down, the camera craning around to his point of view. An injured chimp limping into his cage. A man standing in a temple, facing down a strange new world. The director’s sense of humor pokes through a few times, especially when contrasting the ape’s advanced society with their more animal-like behavior. However, “Planet of the Apes” is distressingly lacking in Burton-esque elements. No expressionistic sets, no black and white spirals, no outcast heroes or strange girl romantic leads. Ultimately, most anyone could have directed this film.

The film was not well received upon release. Save for one element. Legendary creature effects guru Rick Baker was put in control of creating the apes’ make-up and designs. The result is some of the effects man’s best work. The apes of the film are a brilliant blending of simian characteristics and human-like elements. The attention to detail in the faces and hair is spell-binding. Amazingly, each ape has a personality. An elderly orangutang has large jowls hanging off his face. Chimps grimace wildly while gorilla beat their chest and sneer. Ari, the lead female ape, is almost eerily too human, the character being given humanoid lips, eyelashes, and a haircut. One of the smartest things Baker did was create complex facial appliances that didn’t obscure the actors’ eyes. Doing so allows a range of expression usually unseen in make-up like this. An astonishing amount of work went into even minor background characters. Each ape is a fully formed design and amazingly life-like.

Baker’s creature make-up is not the only example of the film’s budget being up on the screen. The most Burton-esque element is the film’s spectacular production design. In the ape cities, homes have been built into trees. Arching root hallways and simple stone floors gave the impression of a society that is advanced but chooses to remain in touch with nature. One of the my favorite elements of the film is the ape military. Each soldier wears distinctive armor, red in coloration, decorated with swirling plates and pointed helmets. When camped out in the dessert, the soldiers sleep in huge, red tents. Even the ape weaponry has a unique design to it, General Thade wielding a pair of star-shaped clubs at one point. The movie has many problems and lacks the director’s trademark style yet there’s no denying that “Planet of the Apes” is lovely to look at.

An incredible amount of work went into realizing the ape planet on screen. And not just in the make-up, sets, and costumes. The buildings are designed to be climbed over, fitting the ape physiology. More then once, we see apes use their feet like secondary hands. Some of my favorite moments are minor. An ape street musician plays an instrument with his hands and feet. A group of ape teenagers party in an alleyway. During their downtime, a trio of ape soldiers play cards.

As presented in the film, ape society is roughly equivalent to the Roman Empire. Ape senators control the politics. The army, and constant military expansion, is an important part of every day life. Slavery is a common practice and is widely accepted. Debates rages over the morality of slavery but it’s clear it’s not going away any time soon. It’s an interesting parallel to present and roots the fantastic premise in reality. The film even gets into the concept of ape religion. A major character is a religious fanatic, worshiping the Ape Jesus who was the first ape to live. One of the major disappointments of the film is that, when the truth of the apes’ origin is revealed, there isn’t more of a cultural fall-out. The original “Planet” series has excellent world-building and, flaws and all, the 2001 version continues that trend.

The movie also has the benefit of putting some great actors under those elaborate make-ups. Front and center is Tim Roth as General Thade. Roth imbues Thade with enough villainous zeal for several movies. The character hisses and growls every line, putting visceral hatred into everything he does. Thade is a constant schemer, always looking for ways to advance his own state of power. Even his father’s death doesn’t seem to set him back very much. The role is not complex but Roth puts an incredible amount of energy into it, making Thade an intimidating, fascinating character.

Perhaps stealing Roth’s thunder a little is the second major lead. Helena Bonham Carter plays Ari. She is the ideological opposite of the racist Thade and believes humans and apes can co-exist in peace. Carter makes Ari seem like more then a rebelling teenager, giving the character a considerable intelligence. The actress also brings a lot of humor to the part, whooping in fear when faced with water. Most surprisingly, she also makes the character oddly sensual. Ari has far more chemistry with Mark Walhberg then he does with the incredibly flat and unimportant human love interest played by Estalla Warren. In the finished film, Ari only kisses Davidson. Apparently, in an earlier draft, the two actually had sex. Weird as it sounds, that seems like a really natural decision. It’s not exactly hard to see why Burton fell in love with Helena on this film as she’s an entrancing presence.

Even the supporting cast is filled out with prime character actors. Michael Clarke Duncan probably could have gorilla-growled his way through his part as Attar, the head general. However, the character’s religious convictions at an interesting layer and allow Duncan to show a softer side, occasionally. Paul Giamatti is fantastically sleazy as Limbo, an orangutang slave trader. He winds up following the heroes around, mostly by accident, leading to a lot of opportunities for comic relief. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays totally to type as a dishonored ape solider. (At least he’s not a samurai.) David Warner is a distant head of state. Glenn Shadix is a rotund, decadent orangutang senator while Lisa Marie is his shallow, eye-candy wife. While few of these actors are exploring new ground, each inhabit the roles fully. Most importantly, they use ape-like posture and body language, making their transformation even more believable.

So the film builds a gorgeous, convincing world and fills it full of interesting characters played by great actors. What’s the problem then? Right in the center of the movie is a giant, sucking black hole shaped like Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is soundly uninvolving as one of the blandest Hollywood protagonist ever brought to flat, unconvincing life. His Bahstan accent is incredibly distracting in the sci-fi setting. Davidson is blandly heroic and weirdly opportunistic, when you consider he does everything just so he can get home. Wahlberg’s flat as can be performance sets a precedence. If there’s an actor in the movie and they aren’t under make-up, chances are they’re a total bore. A complete snooze of a protagonist is the movie’s biggest problem.

The “Ape” series is also famous for sneaking social commentary in under its outrageous science fiction premise. 2001’s “Ape” begins as a none-to-subtle allegory for slavery. Humans are rounded up, chained in cages, sold at market, and forced to do menial labor in the apes’ homes. They are treated as property and those that consider them as, well, human are treated as outsiders. However, if the movie was attempting to say something about slavery, there’s no clear message. The cruelty faced by the enslaved is not explored enough to make an impression. The film seems to be making some sort of clumsy statement about firearms as well. Guns are presented as the object that separate humans from apes. When an ape gets his hand on a gun, he either smashes it immediately or it leads to his downfall. The film doesn’t delve into gun control or rights on any deeper level. It’s merely the faintest wisp of social commentary, not revealing or exploring anything.

More over, the movie abandons this subtext midway through for uninvolving action theatrics. The climax is a massive showdown between the apes and the humans, full of explosions and violence. However, there’s little reason to be interested. Aside from a few colorful moments, like the apes running on their knuckles or the final fate of the main villain, the climax is routine and flat. The finale even moves the action out of the ape city, taking place in a bare, nondescript desert. So we don’t even get to look at the neat sets. By the end, much of what made “Planet of the Apes” involving vanishes off-screen.

And then there’s that baffling ending. Throughout, the film makes cutesy references to the original series, like the famous “Damn dirty ape” line being put into a gorilla’s mouth or Charlton Heston’s cameo as the ancient ape who guards the gun. The new film attempts to create a twist ending that can stand up to the original’s iconic shocker. The result is baffling at best. Marky-Mark makes it back to Earth and lands in front of the Lincoln Monument. Inside, however, he sees not Abraham Lincoln but Ape-raham Lincoln and is greeted by a police force of Earthly apes. Supposedly, a sequel would have explained this non-sequitur of an ending. Since that never happened, the viewer is left scratching their head. The explanation that was eventually given is clumsy, presuming that a lot happened off-screen, and winds up confusing the issue further. Though intended as a homage to the original novel’s ending, the effect is only confusing, never shocking or surprising.

The 2001 version of “Planet of the Apes” ultimately has a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve. From the perspective of make-up and art design, the movie works fantastic. Unfortunately, a boring leading man, routine screenplay, and confounding ending makes the movie more problematic then memorable. As a Tim Burton movie, there’s little about it to recommend. The apes wouldn’t return until 2011 when a new reboot would deliver the brains and heart we’ve come to expect from the series. Brains and heart that this version is severely lacking. [Grade: C+]

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1999)

8. Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton spent a year developing “Superman Lives,” an ultimately doomed project that probably would have been terrible anyway. After the director fled that sinking ship, he quickly turned his attention to “Sleepy Hollow,” a big budget adaptation of Washington Irving’s iconic short story. “Sleepy Hollow” came at the tale end of a short-lived era when mainstream studios were making glossy, R-rated, costume drama horror films for grown-ups, must of them adapted from classic literary sources. Despite his entire career being heavily influenced by the horror genre, “Sleepy Hollow” was Tim Burton’s first true horror movie.

Set in 1799, the film follows Ichabod Crane, reimagined as a police detective living in New York City. Crane’s reliance on forensics, still seen as an untested science, has him sent packing to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. There, a series of ghastly murders have taken place, various town officials having their heads cleaved off. The superstitious town folks blame the killings on the legendary Headless Horseman. The skeptical Crane looks for a more scientific explanation, at least until he sees the Horseman with his own eyes. Pulled into the conspiracies of the small town, while romancing the lovely daughter of the town elder, Crane has to get to the bottom of this. Before the Horseman comes calling for his head.

The film wildly reimagines Irving’s short story. In the story, Icabod Crane is superstitious, enough that just hearing the local ghost story seriously spooks him. The character in the film is the exact opposite. Crane is a stern believer in logic and is skeptical in the face of local superstitions. He’s a proto-atheist too, turning his nose up at the Bible. The original story is basically about the love triangle between Crane, Katrina, and Brom Bone, finished off with an awesome ghost story. The movie, however, builds a complex mythology around the town and the Headless Horseman. About the only thing it keeps, aside from a jokey reference to the story’s conclusion, is the origin of the Horseman myth. In both, the Horseman is a Hessian soldier decapitated in the heat of battle. Because even a wildly revisionist adaptation knows to keep something that awesome.

The change in Crane’s character is an important one. While the genre of the supernatural detective had existed for years in books and comics, and had a few precedences on television, “Sleepy Hollow” is an early example of the subgenre on film. Crane is presented as ahead of his time, understanding that studying corpses and crime scenes are the best way to understand the crime. This coldly logical approach only gets him so far. Crane’s skepticism is heavily shaken when the Horseman appears in front of him. Now, Icabod takes on the role of the supernatural detective, applying his ability to see clearly through a complicated path to the magic scenario he finds himself in.

The obvious influence classic horror has had on Tim Burton needs no explaining. Yet it’s surprising that it took him until 1999 to make a real horror movie. Though originally conceived as a classy slasher film, the primary influence on “Sleepy Hollow” reaches back further. The movie is widely the director’s homage to Hammer Horror. The movie recalls the look of Hammer, by taking place primarily on intentionally artificial looking sets. The story structure recalls the British studio’s output by slowly revealing more monstrous activities as the film progresses, bringing to mind “Curse of Frankenstein” and other classic films. The period setting, with men in powdered wigs and fancy overcoats and women in bodice and dresses, is obviously influenced by Hammer. Amusingly, the film takes place in post-Colonial America, not the UK, turning the formula on its head.

The element of the film that most recalls Hammer, though, is the movie’s gore effects. Compared to the nasty, hyper-realism of then-modern slasher films, “Sleepy Hollow” takes a more stylized approach. The movie copies the bright red blood that highlighted so many of those movies. There’s a creativity and, dare I say, whimsy to the way the film paints with blood. The earliest kill scenes has blood splattering on a smiling, Jack o’Lantern-headed scarecrow. Heads get cleaved and tossed around with a comic book furiosity. One decapitation has the head spinning on the neck with a swipe of the blade. Even the movie’s nastiest death scene, involving impalement on a fence spire, has a comical feel to it, with the way the situation escalates. Very little of the movie’s violence could be describes as mean-spirited. Instead, Burton and his team successfully created a slasher flick that is light-hearted even with countless decapitated heads rolling around and stumps spurting blood.

After “Mars Attacks!” was light on Burton’s trademark visuals, the filmmaker’s style makes a strong comeback here. “Sleepy Hollow” is painted almost entirely in strong shades of grey and black. New York City is filled with black buildings, the street and rooms flooded in dark shadows. The town of Sleepy Hollow is surrounded by a forest of dead trees. Gray, lifeless bark informs the look of the whole town. The interiors are slate-gray, flat boards against sterile walls. As impressive as the town is, the forest sets are the true benchmark here. The dead, hanging trees create a mood of foreboding whenever the characters walk through it. The Tree of the Dead is a singular image, twisting and unforgettable. The primary colors of gray and black make the bright red splashes of blood stand out. Notably, after the threat has been neutralized at the end, a warm brightness enters the film, replacing the drab coloring. Without drawing too much attention to the director’s expressionistic roots, “Sleepy Hollow” successfully creates a world of its own. Burton employs some of his fantastic wide shots, especially when Crane first arrives in town. The final scene takes place as Christmas and slips Christina Ricci in a black and white stripped dress, as if the director was celebrating holding off on including either of those things sooner.

The movie’s gray color palette is interrupted during other scenes as well. Early on, we get hints of Icabod’s past, like strange scars on his hands. Through dream sequences, we meet his parents. His beautiful, mysterious mother enchanted young Icabod with her witchy ways. His tyrannical, religious fanatic father squashes their fun. These flashbacks are brightly lit, full of clear whites and colorful flora. They are also dialogue free, backed only by music. Burton’s sweeping camera, combined with the eerie music and the surreal events, successfully capture a dream-like tone, notably when Icabod’s mom, played by Lisa Marie, spins into the air. The dream sequences also build fantastically. It concludes with little Icabod stumbling into his father’s torture chamber. He finds his mother in an iron maiden, opening it, flooding the room with blood and meeting eye-to-eye with her punctured face. It’s a startling but strangely beautiful moment. It also references two of the films of Barbara Steele, whom Marie superficially resembles. The holes in her face are from “Black Sunday” while her eyes peering from within a torture chamber are from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Both films were a clear influence on the overall look of “Sleepy Hollow.” 

 “Sleepy Hollow” is undeniably a horror film, with its demonic villain and gory effects. However, to say it is a totally straight genre film is misleading. “Sleepy Hollow” also contains strong elements of action. More then once, victims attempt to fight the Horseman off with hand-to-hand weapon. The ghostly assassin parries and deflects their blows. stuntman Ray Park going out of his way to remind you that he was also Darth Maul. The last act of the story is an extended chase scene. The Headless Horseman corners Icabod, Katrina, and Young Masbath in a windmill. The heroes climb the staircase, the Horseman riding a rope towards them. Before the mill goes up in flames, Frankenstein-style, the good guys climb down the mill’s giant fan blades, also bringing “Brides of Dracula” to mind. Instead of just burning, the mill violently explodes, a goofy moment largely overlooked because the film is already on its way to the next set piece. The carriage chase has character leaping from horses, dragged across the ground on ropes, and dodging branches and sword blows. The action is dynamic and exciting, easily the best of the director’s career, putting the stiff fight scenes from “Batman” to shame.

“Sleepy Hollow” is also a mystery. The plot’s machinations are convoluted and mostly unimportant. It involves a secret wedding, an illegitimate pregnancy, obscure family connections, and wills entitling people to riches. Ultimately, when the person behind the plot is revealed, the motivations prove far less complicated, a mixture of personal revenge and personal greed. What’s fun about these scenes has more to do with watching Crane sleuth it up. His interrogation of Michael Gough’s town notary features some wonderful acting from both actors. When Icabod has filled his rooms full of notes, connecting the dots, his teenage sidekick sits back, disinterested and confused. This gives us a good idea of what a Burton Batman film featuring Robin would have been like. The mystery might ultimately be set dressing but watching the gears turn and come into place is still a blast.

The film is only Burton’s third collaboration with Johnny Depp but the two were well into their long relationship together. Amusingly, the script maintains many of Crane’s other trademark elements, such as his squeamishness. Especially humorous moments have him leaping up on a chair from a spider or a look of shock when blood splatters on his face. While Crane is both incredibly brave at times, leaping from a moving carriage for example, he’s also a humorless wimp at times. Depp has a good time subverting action hero expectations, making Crane a lovably egg-headed protagonists. Christina Ricci plays the second lead, Katrina Van Tassel, Icabod’s love interest. Katrina, a part that probably would have been played by Winona Ryder a few years earlier, is secretly a witch and immediately smitten with Crane. The film does its best to make the relationship workable. A scene when the two are flirting in the burnt out remains of a cabin are fairly charming. However, Ricci doesn’t have much chemistry with Depp and her character comes off as petulant at times. The blonde dye job isn’t flattering, even if she looks great in the period dresses.

Luckily, Burton fills the supporting cast with fantastic actors. Confirming the Hammer connection, Michael Gough and Christopher Lee have brief cameos. The latter brings his deep voice and sense of authority to his role as a judge while the former is fantastically nervous as the depressed notary. Michael Gambon does a good job of playing someone who appears to be friendly but is secretly planning nefarious things. Jeffrey Jones’ inherent superiority suits his role as a corrupted holy man nicely while future Richard Griffiths sweats it up fantastically as the nervous Magistrate who knows too much.

Yet the best performances belong to the film’s two villains. Christopher Walken’s role as the headed Horseman is brief, essentially limited to an early flashback and the conclusion. He makes up for it by filling the time with Maximum Walken. He never blinks, instead yelling and hissing, glaring intensely at his foes and dispatching them with ease. It’s one of the last times Walken would be terrifying on-screen, before he started playing his creepiness for humor. Nearly overshadowing Walken is Miranda Richardson. Kept in the background for most of the film, Richardson cuts loose at the end. Gloriously hamming it up, she spits each line with venom and vigor.

Danny Elfman’s score might be one of his more forgettable numbers but “Sleepy Hollow” is mostly a blast. It’s a delightful genre exercise, packed full of different types of thrills. It’s not necessarily fair to say its Burton’s last good movie. However, it’s the last film from the time period when the director’s reputation was untouchable. As a swan song to Burton’s coolest period, it’s a fine number. (And I still have the totally bitchin’ action figures too.) [Grade: B+]

Friday, June 20, 2014

Recent Watches: Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman & Robin” is, easily, the movie most loathed by nerds, at least until the “Star Wars” prequels came along. The film is widely seen as the nadir of the “Batman” franchise.  Joel Schumacher’s has been called the devil, the Batnipples has been widely mocked, and the whole movie is generally regarded as a massive hate-shit of forced camp and ridiculous performances. “Batman & Robin” is bad, there’s no doubt about that. But is really that bad?

In the events since “Batman Forever,” Batman and Robin have become an established crime-fighting team. As the film begins, the Dynamic Duo are battling Mr. Freeze, the freeze-ray sporting and ice pun throwing villain out to steal giant diamonds, saving his terminally ill wife as his final goal. Around the same time, botanist Pamela Isley is killed by her research partner after she discovers he’s using her experiments to create super-solider. This winds up not working, as Isley is reborn as super-villainess Poison Ivy. Heading to Gotham, with her dumb muscle Bane in hand, Ivy and Freeze form an uneasy alliance, both targeting Batman and Robin. Meanwhile, the ill Alfred brings his niece Barbara to Wayne Manor, where the young girl with a secret adventurous side winds up taking up a Batmantle of her own.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. “Batman & Robin” is a campy movie. The entire film is powered by camp, pushing far pass even what was acceptable in 1997 for campiness in mainstream cinema. The dark, brutal world of Burton’s Batman films is long gone, replaced fully by Schumacher’s day-glo, high-gloss camp. From the film’s opening minutes, Batman and Robin are sprouting ice skates from the bottom of their feet to battle a fleet of henchmen in hockey outfits. Mr. Freeze flies through the sky on butterfly wings while the Dynamic Duo leap from an exploding rocket while surfing on metal doors. Poison Ivy crashes a jungle themed party, where the dancers are dressed in grass skirts, while wearing a pink gorilla outfit. She then proceeds to do a sexy dance while still in the pink gorilla outfit. Every minor side character in the film, from security guards to scientists, have awful jokes to tell while Batman and the villains are fighting around them. A bulldog is frozen while peeing on a fire hydrant. I mean, come on. Parts of “Batman & Robin” are hard to take is the point I'm trying to convey.

And yet… I can say with pure confidence that I prefer Schmacher’s second crack at the Bat-franchise over his first. While “Batman Forever” was an uneasy mixture of Schumacher’s goofy style and Burton’s darker themes, “Batman & Robin” is pure Schumacher. While the plot and characters are more absurd, Schumacher actually restrains his visual style a little more. The Gotham here resembles the Gotham of Burton’s films slightly more. The city is marginally darker and the more Gothic architecture returns. At least three buildings in the city are supported by giant Greek style statues. The script is a little more focused this time too, though only slightly better. I’ll even say that George Clooney has far more chemistry with Chris O’Donnell then Val Kilmer did. The movie is ridiculous but I’d say its ridiculousness goes down a little easier then “Forever’s.”

Aside from the Batnips, the film is probably most criticized for its performance. Dead-center at the flick’s campy heart is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Freeze, while born in the campy Silver Age, is best known as a complex, morally-conflicted character, a quiet, (literally) coldly logical man whose villainous actions are driven by heartbreak. Schwarzenegger’s Freeze, on the other hand, is preoccupied with ice-related puns. Arnie, of course, has a way with one-liners and, good God, does he sink his teeth in here. “Allow me to break the ICE!” and so on. The movie runs with the character’s gimmick, in the way only a silver age comic book would. Freeze’s henchmen are all done up as hockey players. His evil base is a frozen food and ice cream factory. His bombs are shaped like icicles. The goofiest element is that how, while at ease, Freeze lounges in a bathrobe decorated with penguins, polar bear bedroom slippers, and sings the Snow Miser song. As ridiculously goofy as all this is, the movie still attempts to maintain Freeze’s heart as a man doing everything for his frozen wife. It jives badly with the rest of the movie’s tone, of course, and the image of a tear freezing on his cheek is hilariously overwrought. How much you enjoy Schwarzenegger’s performance here depends solely on your pre-built-in affection for the actor. Arnold was very comfortable with his on-screen persona by this point and he plays Mr. Freeze as basically a super villain version of John Matrix. Is it a good performance? Probably not. Is it entertaining? I’d be lying if I said no.

Less successful is Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Ivy is another complicated comic character, an Eco-terrorist whose motivations are ultimately admirable and, frequently, performs as many positive acts as negative. She’s also a classic femme fatale, using her sexuality as a weapon against the men of Gotham City. “Batman & Robin” runs with the former characteristic while barely acknowledging the first. Poison Ivy is ostensibly motivated by humanity’s treatment of plant life and the Earth. However, her goals seem like a rough fit with Mr. Freeze’s and Ivy is mostly just a glowering evil bitch. Her botanical obsession is reduced to a gimmick, with her growing a garden quickly or scooping up Batman with vines. Instead, Ivy mostly uses her pheromones to instantly seduce men, a clumsy device. Thurman’s disastrous performance helps none at all. For reasons I can’t discern, Thurman decided to do an exaggerated, ridiculous Mae West impersonation. The way she vamps and croons is frankly embarrassing for an actress as proven and talented as Uma. (Honestly, John Glover’s cartoonishly over-the-top performance as Dr. Woodrue, Ivy’s creator, is way more entertaining. Maybe Floronic Man should have been the second villain in the movie instead…)

The fourth Batman movie also features the third actor to play Batman in this series. In concept, George Clooney seems like an ideal choice for the part. He has the good looks to pull off handsome playboy Bruce Wayne but is clearly talented enough to play Batman’s inner darkness. Unfortunately, Clooney is highly uneven in the part. There’s one or two moment, such as when Bruce is detective-ing on the Batcomputer, where you get a taste of the great Batman Clooney could have been. Most of the time, Clooney seems lost among the camp. He mostly grimaces from behind the cowl, chomping stiffly through the awful dialogue he’s given, such as when he tosses out the Bat-Credit Card. Any moment Clooney has to share screen time with his incredibly unimportant female love interest, Elle Macpherson as Julie Madison, he’s visibly pained by the script.

The film does a much better job of fusing together its two villains then “Forever” did. Disappointingly, it wouldn’t be a Schumacher Batman flick without at least one stuffed-in, unnecessary subplot. About a half-hour into the film, Alfred's niece Barbara comes to visit Wayne Manor. While Babs seems like a good school girl at first, she secretly has a love for street racing, motorcycles, and judo. Her role is generally small, the film forgetting about her for long stretches in favor of Freeze and Ivy’s antics. Right before the third act turn, Barbara cracks Alfred’s ridiculous easy password, discovers the Batcave, and becomes Batgirl. The movie does a massive disservice to the Batgirl character, a massively important part of the Bat Family mythos. It’s not even technically the right character. This is Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece and not Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. This is actually fine, since Pat Hingle’s Jim Gordon has been reduced a cameo at this point. However, Barbara’s role in the story is tiny and has no effect on the plot until the very end. Her introduction as Batgirl happens so quickly, so late in the film, that it’s barely acknowledged. The killing blow to the character is Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone is awful in the part, mumbling through her dialogue in an incredibly flat manner. She is deeply miscast in the part, Silverstone’s flighty blonde act being a poor fit for the typically more brainy Batgirl part. The pro-active things she does in the movie mostly come off as a limp attempt at “Girl power!” Like Uma, Silverstone at least looks lovely in the tight, revealing outfits.

As problematic as the actors and characters are, “Batman & Robin” at least attempts to formulate a genuine theme. The reason Barbara gets involved in the story is because Alfred is suddenly ill. Instead of this simply being old-age getting to the man, Alfred is stricken with some made-up disease. As he is ill, Bruce and Alfred have numerous heart-to-heart moments. Alfred gets at the heart of Batman’s quest, that it’s an attempt to overcome the inevitably of death. Several quiet moments involve Bruce remembering Alfred taking care of him when he was a kid. The need for family plays out in Batman and Robin’s developing relationship and how they’re still learning how to depend on each other. Of course, the villains are barely involved in this theme, unless you count Dr. Freeze’s devotion to his wife. I’m not saying it works. It frequently gets lost amidst the silliness. But at least they tried.

Of course, there’s something else going on under the surface in “Batman & Robin.” Barely. “Batman Forever” was a super-gay superhero flick. Part four is even gayer. Batman and Robin’s suits are even more ridiculously homoerotic, with the Batnipples, codpiece, molded abs, and lingering close-ups on their rubber-clad asses. Using Poison Ivy in the film, and emphasizing her femme fatale attribute over the Eco-terrorist angle, essentially makes aggressive female sexuality the villain of the film. When Ivy hits Batman and Robin with her seducing scent, the duo is split apart. In order to win the day, both men must overcome their sexual attraction to a woman! That Wayne has way more chemistry with Dick then he does with the barely there Julie certainly helps support this subtext. And though there’s no reason to read into Bruce and Alfred’s relationship, you totally could if you wanted too. Despite doing everything for his wife, even Mr. Freeze could be read as gay or at least asexual. When Vivica A. Fox’s needless eye-candy character (named, sigh, Ms. B. Haven) hits on him, he rejects her. His partnership with Poison Ivy seems completely one-sided as well, the male villain having no attraction to her and seeing no need for it. The gay subtext in “Batman Forever” seemed deeply out of place but, at least this time, it fits the film’s overall campy tone.

The film’s many failures have been widely blamed on Joel Schumacher. Not everything wrong with the movie was his fault. The studio meddled heavily with “Batman & Robin” during production. The director was forced to include more toyetic elements. Thus Batman and Robin don new, Arctic-style suits before the end and jump into strangely ice-specific vehicles. The Batcave and all the vehicles inside got destroyed in the last movie, meaning this one can feature brand new ones. (To make new toys from.) This Batmobile has a glowing, spinning engine under the hood, an ideal feature for a play set but totally useless for a real vehicle. Mr. Freeze drives around in a weird freezing tank that was obviously designed as a toy first and a real vehicle second. Even the inclusion of Batgirl and Bane seem like another obvious attempt to make more new toys. I’m not a huge fan of Bane as a character, always considering him rather gimmicky, but reducing the guy to monosyllabic, dumb muscle wasn’t fair at all to the source material.

As Clooney said afterwards, “Batman & Robin” killed the franchise. It destroyed careers too. Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone were both furiously ejected from the A-list following this film, both all-but disappearing afterwards. Uma Thurman wouldn’t do anything of note again until Tarantino came calling once more. (This, sadly, is consistent with Thurman’s terrible non-Tarantino career choices.) It would take George Clooney several more years to gain audience’s trust as a leading man. Only Arnold truly survived, mostly because his career was already on a downward turn by this point. Schmacher and Clooney have repeatedly apologized for the film over the years. Not that they need too, considering how fans will never stop hating this movie. It’s not good, that’s for sure, but I would honestly say it’s a slightly smoother ride then “Batman Forever.” I might be alone in that opinion. [5/10]