Tag Archives: Blockbuster

25TH ANNIVERSARY: TIM BURTON’S BATMAN (1989)

A quarter century after its debut, ‘s Batman (1989) is still among the brightest of the comic book genre films; an odd thing, given how dark it is. However, Burton’s Batman has a glamorous darkness. Burton was young, energetic, and at the top of his game in 1989. His interpretation of the caped crusader remains groundbreaking and is more astute than ‘s The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan went the mile to distance the avenger from his comic book origins. Burton embraces the source material.

Upon Batman‘s monstrously hyped release, many critics lamented the dominant personality of ‘s Joker as compared to the title character. In hindsight, Nicholson’s killer clown seems less innovative than Heath Ledger’s radically different interpretation. Today, it is easier to recognize Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne as the eye of Tim Burton’s hurricane: he inhabits the quintessential capitalist fantasy. In a case of shrewd casting, Keaton’s Batman has no extraterrestrial powers, nor does he even look like he has spent his life in the gym. Rather, Wayne is fabulously wealthy and it is all those “wonderful toys,” bought by all that wonderful money, that makes him an all-American noir Superman, free to wreck vengeance upon a fascistic Gotham’s lower criminal element. Like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper before him, Keaton went through the script, pruning his dialogue down to the bare essentials, making this an internalized performance.

Burton’s casting inspired controversy among unimaginative comic book fanatics, who only saw Keaton in his previous comic roles. The actor and director proved them wrong. ‘s Wayne, in the Nolan films, resorts to a dull playboy act. Keaton’s Wayne can’t help revealing that he has as many screws loose as his alter ego. Burton says in less than ten minutes what Nolan takes an entire film to tell: Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) stumble upon a hidden Wayne manor room of armor and weaponry, explaining the inspiration for the costumed alter ego.

From Boss Grissom’s mafioso penthouse to the Axis chemical plant and a quack surgeon’s back alley office, Anton Furst’s set design is among his best (in an impressive career that unfortunately ended with the artist’s suicide in 1991). Also noteworthy are Roger Pratt’s cinematography, Bob Ringwood’s costuming and Danny Elfman’s resonant, Wagnerian score, all done under the guidance of Burton, elevating pulp into anarchic poetry. Like the Burton-helmed sequel, Batman consistently surprises enough to nearly render its flaws secondary. 

Still from Batman (1989)Nicholson’s Jack Napier shines most when he wrecks havoc upon pop culture, sabotaging consumer products and brooding over popular media’s not so subliminal sales tactics. The chief flaw of the film lies in a lack of a substantial female character, which Batman Returns (1992) remedied in spades. Vale is merely there as a decoration for Bruce Wayne’s arm. A second noticeable flaw is in the intrusive music by Prince (otherwise, a very good artist during his youthful prime). However, the related MTV videos were considerably better, and a wonderful example of how big a pop phenomenon Batman was.

Homages to ‘s Metropolis (1927), ‘s Vertigo (1958), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) are prominent, but, for the most part, Burton keeps cinematic references down to a minimum, something he would not do in Batman Returns (1992). Naturally, Tim Burton’s Batman is not as much guilty pleasure fun as “Scooby Do Meets Batman” or “Superfriends,” and it certainly isn’t the delicious morsel that Adam West gave in his legendary camp take on the character. Yet, Burton manages to make a tale of two sociopaths, spawned from the gutter, into highly stylized entertainment.

Batman was birthed by the then new graphic novel trend, most notable Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight.” The script was written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based on Bob Kane’s original characters. The violence in Batman is comic bookish and stately: the Joker fries a mafioso with a hidden hand buzzer, and the murder of boss Grissom is devoid of blood. At times, the film seems to be enveloped in a Tex Avery ‘toon: after mating with his girlfriend, Wayne hangs upside like a bat, the Batplane soars upward to the moon (creating a bat signal), a joker card is flipped over with Carl Stalling-like sound effects foreshadowing Napier’s fate, the Joker’s hand melodramatically emerges from acid, the silhouetted Caped Crusader moves like wet ink atop a roof, and the Joker shoots down the Batplane with a gun that looks like it might have been ordered from Acme supplies. The henchmen are really not too far removed from Cesar Romero’s sycophants. Batman is crepuscular, and, thankfully, it’s never realistic. 

Apart from Heath Ledger, Nolan’s believed-to-be superior Dark Knight is devoid of humorous touch and is so utilitarian, with one plot too many, that it is doubtful the film would have worked without the late actor’s turn as a pathological clown.

Unfortunately, neither Burton nor Keaton went beyond their two entries in the series. Perhaps a man dressed up like a bat might revitalize both artists.           

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Usually, movies about toys are merely an excuse for mass merchandising. Make no mistake: The Lego Movie (2014) is immersed in marketing, but that is secondary because the filmmakers wisely and creatively keep the film’s heart intact.  The Lego Movie may prove to be the best film of the year and, in its second run, can be seen for less than the price of  an actual Lego. That is a far better spend than putting a second mortgage down for most of the first-run dreck we are inundated with.

The Lego Movie is a pop culture manifesto, composed of wall-to-wall references and jokes that come at you fast and furious. Yet, the in-jokes are so judiciously worked into the fantasy at large that they leave you smiling instead of spinning. This was no doubt helped by the writing/directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The duo clearly were inspired by the level of imagination found in the long-popular toy. It is remarkable what a mere two artists can do, as opposed to committee-style filmmaking. Lord and Miller began their collaboration with the cult series “Clone High” (2002) and continued to the big screen with Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009) and 21 Jump Street (2012).  In addition to the writing/directing team, what makes The Lego Movie so winning is the personality to be found in plastic.

As a mystic toy,  spoofs his pious screen persona, and his sense of joy in doing so is contagious. Equaling Freeman in voice work is Chris Pratt as the protagonist construction worker Emmett; Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle; Will Arnett as Batman; Alison Brie as Unikitty; and Liam Neeson as GoodCop/Bad Cop. A smorgasbord of high- and pop-culture characters make appearances, from Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) and Shakespeare (Jorma Taccone) to Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders).

Brick City is a universe in its own right and it absorbs everything that came before it with shrewd wit, including Star Wars (with Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels reprising their respective roles). The Lego Movie even does the impossible: it makes George Lucas’ characters fun again. The animation here is among the most innovative since the golden age of Disney and the Fleischer Brothers. It is also delightfully weird. It sometimes seems as if has risen from the dead, been given an orange plastic brick and an unlimited budget and let loose.

Still from The Lego Movie (2014)Emmett is the much-needed, flawed little guy hero, and probably the best example we have seen of the type since Wall-E or The Iron Giant. We root for him, as opposed to Batman (and after the last Batman movie, why would anyone cheer the caped crusader)? Yet, here in The Lego Movie even Batman is unexpectedly fresh. Even better: amidst all the dazzling effects, the viewer genuinely hopes that two pieces of plastic, Emmett and Wyldstyle, will interlock.

The most surprising thing, in a movie chock full of surprises, is the glorification of the individual over the status quo corporation. One would hardly expect such a “Piece de Resistance” from a giant manufacturer. Even Will Ferrell rises to the occasion, giving an all too rare good performance as the evil President Business of unfettered capitalism.

Reportedly, over four million digitalized lego images were used in the film, which would seem an invitation for disaster. The production not only pulls it off, but does so with shocking precision through all that hyperkinetic color splashing. The last act of The Lego Movie takes an unexpected route, and one may fear the worst, but the filmmakers pull off yet another surprise, giving us that rarity of all rarities in animated films: an ending which should not be given away.

This is an epic film whose narrative commendably refuses to take the well worn dumbed-down path so often prevalent in movies of this type. Its minuscule flaw may be that it is overly ambitious, but proves a welcome retreat from the plethora of excrement that is bankrupt in ambition. The Lego Movie pulls off the impossible:  it restores some faith in the imaginative and creative potential of the medium, at least for 101 minutes.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

The comic book superhero cult is becoming a new fundamentalist-type religion in the West. The fans (AKA fanatics) approach the movie story of their hero in tights with memories of past comic books, going over the character’s history like scriptural literalists cross-checking every passage. A misplaced comma might be equated with blasphemy. Most amusingly, literal faithfulness and realism are often demanded in movies about characters who started off wearing underwear outside of their pants. If a critic dares to say something negative about the funny-paper deity, they may receive death threats, as did the first professional critic who publicly panned Dark Knight Rises (and never mind that said critic was right).  Of course, the fanboys may only resort to mockery, as they did with Roger Ebert, ridiculing him for dying of cancer, when he dared to give a negative review to Thor (2011). These are the Marvel and DC Taliban; their behavior is so nonsensical it is mind-boggling.

Still from Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)It is perhaps ironic (or perhaps not) to find as much of a level of obsessiveness over characters created by modern Westerners as over those created by ancient Jewish writers. Primitive figures spun from tribal tales have been replaced by Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. We get just as offended by liberties taken with the Caped Crusader as we do liberties taken with Noah. We root for Hulk to wallop puny false gods with the same hip-hip-hooray we afforded Mel’s Lethal Jesus taking one more bloody blow to prove how much of a true “guts and glory” God he is. Ben Affleck as Batman is as heterodox as a wimpy eco-friendly deity who has the audacity to care about the world he created.

Spiderman should be the hero least prone to this type of obsessiveness. He is not like Superman, doused in all that sloppy pious savior mythology. Nor is he is a brooding billionaire crusader for truth like the Dark Knight. Peter Parker, as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, was an idiosyncratic angst-filled teen who had everyday problems like the rest of us. He was never destined for canonization ., producer of “Spiderman: The Animated Series” (1994-1998) perhaps said it best: “It does not matter who Spiderman’s villain is. What matters is Peter Parker can’t pay the rent and has girlfriend problems.” That’s pretty simple advice to remember, which Spiderman 3 (2007), with its smorgasbord of villains, failed to heed. Director Sam Raimi had already  delivered two financial, critical hits. Rather than trust Rami’s track record, Sony interfered, and the result was franchise implosion. Amazingly, Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014) failed to learn that lesson, and delivers the worst film to date about a super arachnid.

The first sign of a here-we-go-again bad omen with Amazing Spiderman 2 is the presence of seven writers credited for the screenplay. That many writers working on Green Lantern (2011) indicated movie-making by committee, and it turned out to be just that. The plethora of chefs here deliver a stale Snickers bar with the guts squeezed out, which is surprising since the Amazing Spiderman (2012) at least seemed to be aware of what had gone wrong in Spiderman 3 and went some distance towards correcting the misstep.

Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, and he has angst in his spandex regarding girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In the first film of the reboot series, Stone’s Stacy proved a better love interest than Kristin Dunst’s self-pitying, eye-lash batting Mary Jane. At the end of Amazing Spiderman, it seemed that Parker’s promise to distance himself from Stacy had been resolved. However, in the sequel, we are subjected to an extended rehash of that promise. Parker also has the backstory of his parents to contend with. That backstory was the reboot’s most pointless addition, but at least it was kept to a minimum. Here, it receives full blown treatment. Aunt May (Sally Field) has become a suburban bore, but she solicits more sympathy than her nephew, who has already lost much of his charm. The scenes with Parker and Stacy are what the film is really about, or rather, should be. However, that set-up is mostly squandered for something that begs description. Pressed, a synopsis could possibly be found, by why would one want to?

Amazing Spiderman 2 is akin to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997): an aluminum Christmas tree on circuit overload. Seldom has so much excess been thrown onto a screen. The answer for such a mess, at least the answer for returning director Marc Webb, is big-name stars. Here, Jamie Foxx, as Electro, fills the same sort of shoes Sir Arnold wore as Mr. Freeze. Joining Foxx in the super-villain team-up is  as a metallic rhinoceros and Dane DeHaan as an emaciated Goblin.  Webb proves as inept as Schumacher or at handling action sequences, and we feel his lethargy, gorging on AC/DC colored CGI. With a solid dramatic base, such gluttony would be forgivable, except the dramatic elements here are as apathetically handled, with far too many witless one-liners used as exclamation points. Stone, who was the freshest thing about the first film, is wasted here.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a video game (as opposed to a movie), except that games are supposed to be fun. The only people who may find any joy in Amazing Spiderman 2 are unimaginative, in-denial Marvel fundamentalists; but whether those folks are really human or not is open to debate.  Amazing Spiderman 2 is a movie for blithering idiots.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: GODZILLA (2014)

The first entry in the “Alfred Eaker vs. the Summer Blockbustes” series, in which we send a curmudgeonly arthouse critic out to the cineplexes to check out the latest in pop culture with the unwashed masses. 

As a movie character, Godzilla always seemed too imitative of his predecessors, notably King Kong (who had far more personality and craft) and a couple of Ray Harryhausen creations (which had more craft). Still, the 1954 Japanese original, distributed by Toho Enterprise and directed by Ishiro Honda, was an imposing manifestation of the H-Bomb. Grimness permeates the original, birthed from an authentic response to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the 1954 nuclear tests in the Pacific (which had resulted in radiation sickness visited upon occupants of a Japanese freighter). The beast of nature brutally emerges, like a fevered dream, amidst raining soot and decimated fallout shelters, to take revenge upon mankind. Contemporary audiences may roll their eyes during some of the clunkier dialogue (i.e.the preachy finale) or squirm through dated FX, which do hold true to form. Horror films, more than any other genre, date quickly: but that hardly renders the original mere camp. The clicking newsreel footage, juxtaposed against the dramatic tensions between the four human characters, nearly banishes the preposterousness of it all. Predictably, American distributors demanded a dumber version tailored to Yank attention spans, which cannot handle much in the way of foreign narrative, let alone subtitles. The result, directed by perennial hack Terry Morse, cut out nearly an hour of footage and added an Americanized half hour with actor Raymond Burr, who in the role of reporter Steve Martin is awkwardly placed throughout the film, pointlessly narrating what we are already seeing. Worse, by muting the escalating human drama, Morse and company actually made the film a duller affair, robbing it of its gnawing pop power. Burr is simply too phlegmatic an actor for such surroundings, lacking the anxieties of Takashi Shimura (an Akira Kurosawa regular) and Momoko Kochi, or the haunting quality of Akihiko Hirata. Western audiences flocked to the bastardized version anyway, and, until a few years ago, when both versions were released on the Criterion Collection, most Americans were largely unaware of the Japanese original.

Godzilla (2014)It was the success of the American Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), rather than Honda’s Godzilla (1954, originally titled Gojira), which set the increasingly cartoonish pattern that followed. Honda, who had previously been an assistant to Akira Kurosawa, wrote the original film’s screenplay and invested a stark sobriety into his absurd narrative. However, it was the American box office which dictated the remainder of Honda’s output. By the third entry in the ongoing franchise, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), the big green lizard (still technically a villain) does battle with of one of his own influences. However, the guy in the rubber gorilla suit here looks more like an embarrassing reject from the Island of Misfit Toys than he does the titular hero of the 1933 classic. King Kong vs. Godzilla nearly serves as a new definition for “execrable.” That, in itself, could prove entertaining, but the film fatally succumbs to unbearable dullness. Even the most hardcore Godzilla fundamentalists are pressed to defend this one, and it is almost shocking to find Honda directed it as well. While the original Godzilla isn’t a certified classic, it is rousing pulp fare.

Within a few films, Godzilla morphed into a kind of jolly green giant, super-dino protector of Japan. Occasionally, the new genre injected fleetingly Continue reading

THE LONE RANGER (2013), OR, THE CONTINUING PARODY THAT IS JOHNNY DEPP

Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies—as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Bogart did not try to defend his own contribution to slipshod productions: “I have made more lousy movies than actor in history.” That statement was a slight exaggeration, but at least Bogart did not go the route of Johnny Depp’s recent insinuation that there is a critical conspiracy to see The Lone Ranger (2013) fail. For the producers’ sake Depp should indeed promote such an expensive endeavor, even if he himself does not like the finished product. However, Depp’s aggressive defense against the overwhelming critical consensus is an incredulous and depressing parody by an artist long dead.

Depp was indeed an artist once, careful about the roles he appeared in. His body of work revealed an actor whose choices were guided by love of challenge and exploration, as opposed to box office appeal. His collaboration with the young  seemed an ideal pairing of two pop revolutionaries. Unfortunately, that ideal climaxed with Ed Wood (1994). Since then, both Burton and Depp have come to personify the Hollywood Sell-Out. Both were ruined by their work with the imposter company now claiming to be Disney Studios. Depp, it seems, can no longer distinguish a good script from a bad script; or, most likely, he no longer cares. He has gone the opposite route of an actor like Burt Lancaster. Once Lancaster achieved a degree of mainstream success, he began to seek out roles that transformed his late body of work into something approaching incandescence. In sharp contrast, Depp has become increasingly vapid. Tellingly, Depp’s “other” big collaboration is with a Disney director (Gore Verbinski) who birthed an entire franchise from a theme park ride. For the studio, that is a steep decline from classics as innovative as Pinocchio (1940), artistically risky as Fantasia (1940), or as exquisitely organic as Dumbo (1941). For Depp, this amounts to the polyurethane varnish on the caricature he has become. In place of Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan, William Blake, Raoul Duke or Cesar, we are witness to a fossilized Depp encased in his own career avarice. While he has certainly surpassed his monetary goals, that success will prove to be the derailing of a once admirable oeuvre. Depp’s fan base, naturally, remains in denial.

The Lone Ranger (2013) is yet another example of cinematic postmodern arrogance. Of course, we need not put a B level pulp character that was probably most interesting during the days of radio on a pedestal. A few of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels movies and TV shows were moderately entertaining, albeit as products of their time. Yet, Verbinski, Depp and the film’s plethora of screenwriters serve up a thoroughly unentertaining mess. Erroneously thinking themselves clever and hip deconstructionists of naïve filmmakers past, their idea of entertainment amounts to an early heart-eating scene, and the protagonist being dragged through a pile of horse excrement. Amazingly, it goes downhill from there.

Still from The Lone Ranger (2013)True to postmodern tenets, the film borrows from virtually everything and never finds its own identity. It makes the classic “haven’t we learned yet?” mistake of casting a white man in the role of a Native American. It’s akin to Al Jolson slapping on blackface. Predictably, the filmmakers take the PC route of making the white man look dumb, while a white man is passing for an Indian. This is merely one of the movie’s numerous hypocrisies.

The movie weaves Anti-American sentiment throughout, manifested in the portrayal of silver-hoarding executives of the train company. It could have played out as a well-deserved sentiment if the film itself had not echoed the gluttonous white shareholders. Dumbed-down crude jokes and loud explosions saturate the excessive second half.

Oh, and I did forget to mention Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger himself? That’s rather easy to do, since he has no charisma. Worse, he has no chemistry with Depp’s Tonto. Predictably, Tonto is the main character, which is problematic when he is nothing more than an eccentric buffoon. Alas, there is not a single, likable character. The Lone Ranger himself is reduced to a clueless representative of naïve patriotism, shorn of morals (he only saves Tonto’s life because he needs the Indian’s assistance). His “creed” is a law book, which he attempts to adhere to in the face of surrounding ignorant religiosity (Western Christianity and Native American spirituality are treated with equal contempt).  (Mrs. Tim Burton) shows up for a cameo, which should have been (and is) a bad omen. She is a whore with a gun hidden in a peg leg, but still manages to make the character dull. Only the horse, Silver, has an iota of personality, but even he is not spared belching jokes.

By the time we hear Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” we are too numb and too tired to care. The movie opens and ends (2 and a half hours later!) with a Little Big Man (1970) rip-off. It was the first and last item from the kitchen sink.

In my review of Man of Steel (2013) I referred to that movie as postmodernism at its worst. I stand corrected.

SUPERMAN ON SCREEN, AND MAN OF STEEL (2013)

Superman should have kept his underwear on.

Despite his status as the oldest, most iconic comic book character, few seem to be able to do Superman justice when it comes to the big screen. Internet buzz among the DC fan base revealed a high level of anticipation for Man of Steel (2013). It had disaster written all over it before the project even started. It would seem obvious to anyone except film executives: co-writer and producer  has a reputation for excruciatingly complicated narrative, which promised to be a case of oil meets water for a very simple, very old, and very well-known story. This was the first bad sign. The second, even more predictable omen of failure was in the choice of hack director . His one-dimensional 300 (2007) was a new, crude lesson in soulless, video game stylized juvenilia. Sucker Punch (2011) actually strove to be even worse and, incredibly enough, succeeded.

Still from Man of Steel (2013)There have been only two solid cinematic treatments of this solemn American myth: Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and Superman II (1980). Superman and the Mole Men depicted Superman in exactly the way he is supposed to be, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He’s a barrel-chested, steadfast believer and proponent of Truth, Justice and the American Way even in the face of social bigotries. (Though he had a lighter side, too; Superman was probably at his zaniest, funniest and most surreal in Jack Kirby’s spinoff “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen”). It works, despite the film’s being undeniably dated, and despite the threadbare budget which resulted in clunky makeup and special effects (such as a souped up vacuum cleaner subbing for a ray gun). It is in Superman’s very first feature film that the filmmakers (a ragtag team of assignment types, including director Lee Shalom, who went onto work in television) captured the rudimentary essence of a decidedly unpretentious character. Preceding the Man of Steel’s first feature were the art deco Fleischer Brothers animated shorts (1941-1943), the noirish radio show “The Adventures of Superman” (1940-1951, starring Bud Collyer as the voice of Superman) and two 1950 theatrical serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (both starring Kirk Alyn). All of these productions were true in spirit to the original “Superman magazine.”

The first season of the televisions series “The Adventures of Superman” (1953-1958) continued the edgy noir flavor of the radio show from which it took its name. Like Superman and the Mole Men, the series starred George Reeves as the quintessential Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as the equally quintessential, feisty Lois Lane. Possessing virtuous fire, Coates’ Lane still has not been surpassed. Unfortunately, the show’s producers, believing virtuousness was not compatible with fire, decided the way to make the show more “kid friendly” was to replace Coates with the hopelessly “Leave it to Beaver”-styled virgin Noel Neill. That wasn’t the only change. While the second season did have a few good episodes, the Continue reading

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill—breaking into targets’

Still from Inception (2010)

subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?:  There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure.  That said, Inception is probably on the borderline.  That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists.  The question is, is it weird?  By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster.  (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes).  Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end.  It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo.  Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id.  With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker.  (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Johnny Depp, the head of , Crispin Glover, voices of Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee

PLOT:  About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a

Still from Alice in Wonderland (2010)

rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.

COMMENTSAlice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting.  The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads.  Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious.  But the story—ouch!  Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever.  In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day.  The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy.  But who cares about such details?  They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”).  We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords.  Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls.  Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale.  Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar.  The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party.  But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues.  It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle.  I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash.  Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario.  It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget.  Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.

To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations.  Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story.  His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did.  The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles.  If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…neither is [Burton's] Alice, sad to report, in the least bit lysergic. On the contrary, the movie is positively sober in its positive image projection and concern with itself as a business model. Like more than one recent movie, Alice seems a trailer for a Wonderland computer game—and it is. The final battle is clearly designed for gaming.”–J. Hobermann, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God

Still from Dracula (1992)

and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading

CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

DIRECTED BY:  George Miller, George Ogilvie

FEATURING: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner

PLOT:  Loner and reluctant hero Mad Max wanders out of the desert and into a crossroads

Still from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

of post-apocalyptic vice known as Bartertown, and later discovers a colony of innocent children in a peaceful oasis who believe him to be a messiah.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If costuming alone could earn a film a place on the list of the 366 weirdest films of all time, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s raggedy punk centurions and Tina Turner’s post-aerobic post-apocalyptic fashions would easily qualify it.  Thunderdome is also the weirdest of the Mad Max series because of its emphasis on new post-civilization rituals: for example, the bizarre legal system of Bartertown, administered by a philosophical hunchback Magistrate of Ceremonies, where tort disputes are resolved by gladiatorial battles and a breach of contract results in a random punishment spun from a wheel of fortune.  But, even though Thunderdome is the oddest of the trilogy, it’s still basically just a creative Western dressed up with sci-fi trappings; it’s weird by summer blockbuster standards, but fails to sneak across the mass appeal genre-piece border.

COMMENTS:  The “Mad Max” series was the most inventive sci-fi/action hybrid of the 1980s, one which sparked a brief but fun post-apocalyptic cycle (which produced a few genuinely weird low-budget Mad Max knockoffs).  Each Mad Max film inhabited the same fascinating universe, a world of scarce resources, shaky alliances, and dying machines held together with spit and twine, but each was very different in tone.  All are recommended.  The original Mad Max was a dark, character-driven revenge drama that gained a cult following.  Mad Max 2, more commonly known as The Road Warrior, was a rollicking action piece that caught lightning in a bottle and inspired Hollywood to pump money into a sequel.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was… well, it was what happens when the series gets a big head and tries to be a summer blockbuster.  The Tina Turner pop song that plays over the opening credits is shamelessly anachronistic and completely inappropriate for a Max movie, but it sets the tone of confused priorities that defines Thunderdome.  The movie flits uncomfortably between the exaggerated, radioactive Casablanca of Bartertown and the brave new Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan world of the children’s tribe.  It’s also a movie that recycles and steals from other movies.  Popular elements from the Road Warrior are reused here.  The feral child has been transformed into an horde of tribal ragamuffins, Bruce Spence from Warrior reappears as a pilot (the character may be the same one from the previous movie; it’s never explained), and the finale is a shameless remake of Warrior‘s climax with a train substituting for the tanker.  There are also blatant references to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and the children’s mangled language (“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”) is reminiscent of the made-up nasdat cant of A Clockwork Orange.  Maybe this reusing of old bits and pieces is appropriate in a movie about an emerging society being built on the ruins of another.  The overall effect is a movie that’s jumbled and uncentered, more than a bit loopy, but still lots of fun.  That overall goofiness, combined with the unique ramshackle look of the punk-barbarian world nearly, but not quite, tilts Thunderdome into the weird zone.

Rumors of a fourth Max movie have been circulating for over twenty years now, and continue as strong as ever.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)