Tag Archives: Tim Burton

TIM BURTON’S BIG EYES (2014)

Big Eyes (2015) is probably ‘s most satisfactory film since Ed Wood (1994). Alas, that is a minuscule compliment. Burton began as a refreshing original working within a tinseled industry, but formulaic demands soon rendered his later work imitative and an example of style over substance.

Burton was once the hip auteur for the perennial college and goth crowds. Now, he is the butt of their humor: a cautionary warning of a sell-out losing all originality and vitality.

He went the distance in proving the cynical naysayers correct, reaching his nadir with Alice in Wonderland (2010), which jettisoned authentic Carrollesque surrealism in favor of populist fluff and a cringe-inducing slice of Johnny Depp ham.

In vain, one hoped Burton had nowhere to go but up, but he only continued his slide, proving nostalgia is fleeting with an ill-advised and execrable update of Dark Shadows (2012). He followed this with a pointless, self-plagiarized feature, Frankenweenie (2012), which predictably worked better in its original version as a compact short.

Burton is certainly not immune to critical fallout. Of course, it has hardly affected his box office standing, but popularity with aesthetically illiterate masses is only salt to the wound.

With Big Eyes, Burton belatedly responds to critics by playing the narcissistic victim, projecting himself onto the figure of artist Margaret Keane. In doing so, he damn near kills the film, but, surprisingly, his opus (barely) survives him.

Still from Big Eyes (2014)Burton’s epic misstep is in subduedly addressing Keane’s art as kitsch. It is kitsch. There is nothing original about her mass-produced  art for the Walmart home spread. Her illustrations are a kind of synthetic parody of Modigliani.  Yet, Burton is a Keane fan, and fan is short for fanatic.  Naturally, he takes the fanboy approach in identifying with his object of adulation. Undoubtedly, Burton can find affinity in Keane’s strategical marketing to a bourgeoise public.

In pedestaling Margaret Keane’s gimmicky, one-note cartoons, Burton casts the art critics and gallery dealers as two-dimensional, jealous predators. It’s the equivalent of a cinematic exclamation point, or a big bang at the end of a pedestrian symphony. The homogenous Tim Burton/Margaret Keane hybrid becomes a much put-upon martyr. Cue big, puppy-eyed closeup.  It is the kind of manipulative choice that Spielberg used to be so goddamned guilty of.

Big Eyes would have been a far better film had Burton made a smarter choice by avoiding the topic altogether, or in taking either an objective or idiosyncratic approach (as he did in Ed Wood). In many ways, Big Eyes serves as little sister to Ed Wood, but in that earlier film, a younger, fresher director did not succumb to tomfoolery. Continue reading TIM BURTON’S BIG EYES (2014)

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 ‘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.           

READER RECOMMENDATION: PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Reader recommendation by “Brad”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mark Holton, Elizabeth Daily, Diane Salinger

PLOT: Pee-Wee Herman, the eccentric childlike persona of Paul Reubens, sest off on a strange and dreamy cross country search for his prized bicycle after local rich “kid” Francis (Holton) steals and the sells the bike.

BACKGROUND:

  • This was weird auteur Tim Burton’s first feature length film.
  • Burton was hired as director after Paul Reubens was impressed with his early short films “Frankenweenie” and “Vincent“.
  • Phil Hartman, the late great comedy performer/writer, contributed to the script, along with Reubens and screenwriter Michael Varhol.
  • Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also Burton’s first collaboration with composer Danny Elfman, whom he’d work with frequently throughout his career.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a lot of visually weird eye candy here: for example, dead truck driver “Large Marge”‘s frighteningly cartoonish face as she describes her body being dragged out from her crashed truck in an iconic stop-motion scare.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: An eccentric lead, situated somewhere between child and grown man, who lives in a house of self-made gadgets and toys, cross-dressing with a convict, creepy clown nightmares, stop motion dinosaurs, and a meta-Hollywood ending: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t let up on strange situations.

Pee Wee's Big AdventureCOMMENTS: I am sure this is usually passed off as some juvenile movie with quirky humor, but it truly is a great collaboration between two originally weird minds. This isn’t Tim Burtons’ film. This isn’t Paul Reuben’s film either. It’s a perfect merging of both. Coming off of his live performance show, the “Pee-Wee” character gained a cult following, allowing Reubens to get this film made. Lucky us. The film is quite warm, although there are plenty of bizarre and dark images throughout. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a labor of love. A definite “passion project.” We see some early Burton stop-motion experimentation, which he later used in many films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, etc. Of course this film also helped start Burton’s film career as a director, which led to some of America’s weirdest film projects. Reubens took the Pee-Wee character and created the equally bizarre children’s show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere between a parody of kitsch and a celebration of it, and it has the bouncing-along inventiveness of a good cartoon… 26-year-old director Tim Burton shows his flair for the silly-surreal.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, , Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones

PLOT: Avon lady Peg (Wiest) finds a strange boy named Edward (Depp) with scissors for hands living in a Gothic castle next to her candy-colored suburban neighborhood. Since his father/creator (Price) has died, Peg brings Edward home with her. At first, the town embraces Edward’s landscaping and hairdressing skills, but when he falls in love with Peg’s daughter (Ryder), complications arise.

Still from Edward Scissorhands (1990)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it’s probably the most personal film directed by Tim Burton, arguably the weirdest filmmaker ever to achieve consistent, mainstream success within the Hollywood studio system. Burton never fully defines the film as either fantasy or science fiction; Edward is something like the Frankenstein monster, with Price as a benevolent mad scientist.

COMMENTS: This unlikely vehicle was really the film that turned the photogenic Johnny Depp into a movie star. (Intriguingly, Depp’s first starring role was actually in Cry-Baby, directed by another iconoclastic filmmaker, .) With his dead-white skin and rat’s nest hairdo, Edward Scissorhands vaguely resembles Robert Smith, lead singer of the rock group The Cure. Edward’s hair also looks something like Burton’s.  This was also the first of eight collaborations so far between Depp and Burton, who obviously see each other as kindred spirits. The film itself is a fabulously Gothic fairy tale, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, a great deal of Burtonesque humor, and any number of haunting images, all backed up by Danny Elfman’s beautiful and mournful music. Both Burton and Elfman have called this their favorite of their own films. The film is set in a full-blown Burton universe, with all of his strange quirks and eccentricities (he wrote the story; Caroline Thompson penned the screenplay). After Edward, all of the live-action films directed by Burton have been based on material created by others (Mars Attacks, Alice in Wonderland, etc.), but this is unfiltered Tim Burton, melancholy and delightfully weird. Somehow, this director’s Disney-in-Hell vision has been palatable to mainstream audiences, unlike, say, the Surrealist nightmares of . (It’s amusing to compare Burton’s satiric portrait of suburbia here with Lynch’s terrifying town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet). The movie is obviously semi-autobiographical for Burton, with Edward being only one of his many white-faced protagonists–Pee-Wee Herman, Barnabbas Collins, Beetlejuice, etc.–and Edward definitely does not fit in the suburbs, which is the way Burton has always said he felt growing up in Burbank. (Ironically, Burbank is a place that Burton, in a way, never left, since most of his films have been for Disney or Warner Bros, which are both located in that city, though Edward was produced at 20th Century Fox.) If any Tim Burton film can make the List, this, his most personal picture, should be the one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One problem is that the other people are as weird, in their ways, as [Edward] is: Everyone in this film is stylized and peculiar, so he becomes another exhibit in the menagerie, instead of a commentary on it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

 

DARK SHADOWS (2012): A SECOND OPINION

See also James Mannan’s review of Dark Shadows.

Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continues the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past sixteen years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as some kind of “dark” auteur. Rather, his is a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka projected far more interior disturbance than Johnny Depp‘s silicone interpretation. In Burton’s Alice Lewis Carroll’s twitchy surrealism gave way to a Disney-paced narrative with yet another cartoon pseudo performance by Depp at its center.

Many critics harp on Burton’s narrative shortcomings. The films of Luis Buñuel refute the lie that three-dimensional characterizations are absolutely wedded to orthodox narratives. Burton’s early films evoked a strikingly fresh milieu with characters who, on the surface, seemed to be flying the freak flag high. But, Burton’s initial cannon of freaks really weren’t so different than the rest of us. If Pee Wee Herman, Adam, Barbara, Lydia and Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle, Edward Scissorhands, Kim, and Peg, along with Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were, perhaps, not immediate family, then they were most certainly extended family or close friends with whom we felt affinity, kinship, and admiration.

Then, something happened. Burton lost his mojo, and Depp followed suit in an even more pronounced, blatantly obvious way. At one point, Depp promised to be the new Brando, offering a fresh alternative to the plasticity of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Whoever would have guessed Continue reading DARK SHADOWS (2012): A SECOND OPINION

GUEST REVIEW: DARK SHADOWS (2012)

 is an actor, director, producer, and the owner of Liberty or Death productions.  He has directed several short horror films along with the feature To Haunt You, produced W the Movie, and previously provided us with a top 10 weird movies list.

Although I watch a lot of films, for various reasons I’m not huge on reviewing them. However, seeing as I’ve been a “Dark Shadows” fan for over 40 years and a Tim Burton fan since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), I thought perhaps his new epic deserved a paragraph or two from me. I saw it this past weekend on the Hamilton IMAX screen in what seemed liked a rather depopulated theater, but I’m not sure what their usual Sunday crowd is like–perhaps everyone else was taking their mom to dinner for Mother’s Day. At any rate. . .

I had followed the dribbling out of info and photos over the past year or so and had seen the infamous trailer that makes the film look like “Vampires Suck Part Deux”. As a disciple of the original series, none of this sat any better with me than I think it did for most fans. Once more we have Tim Burton going his own way without much regard for audience’s expectations or their affection for the originals (think especially Planet of the Apes or even more so his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the latter of which I still haven’t managed to make it all the way through.) I can understand not working toward expectations, but is it always necessary to tread on sacred ground with jackboots? This being said I will consider Dark Shadows from two different perspectives: as a remake of the original series, and as another entry in the auteur’s canon.

Still from Dark Shadows (2012)Many fans of the original series are going to hate this film. Hands down. Jonathan Frid’s beloved, beautiful, complex, tortured Barnabas Collins has been morphed into a typically Burtonesque, overly made-up, funny pages version of the character, ripe for rendering into dolls and action figures. Johnny Depp‘s pancake makeup is so thick and obvious he constantly makes the viewer think of someone made up as Dracula for Halloween (indeed, one wonders if this isn’t partly the idea–this is Tim and Johnny’s Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: DARK SHADOWS (2012)

BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE

In 1992 some damn silly, so-called Christian organization threw a bullying hissy fit at McDonalds for its Happy Meal deal tie-in with Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. McDonalds, true to form, prematurely withdrew its merchandising. Rumor has it that McDonalds issued a stern warning to Warner Brothers not to tap Burton for the next Batman film. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers caved into the golden arch and, consequently, put its franchise into a decade long grave with the unwise hiring of director Joel Schumacher.

Only the fundamentalist mindset can associate Big Macs with a certain brand of morality. Looking at Batman Returns (1992), one wonders what the Christian organization was bitching about. The Bible is all throughout the film and, actually the good book itself has far more sex and violence than Batman, Tim Burton, Warner Brothers and McDonalds combined.

Regardless, Batman Returns remains the greatest cinematic comic book movie to date and one of Tim Burton’s most uniquely accomplished films. Admittedly, I am not a fan of comic book movies, even if I did read comics some when I was kid, but then most kids I knew did. I was in the minority in preferring DC to Marvel, and I guess I am sort of looking forward to the new Green Lantern movie, mainly because the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic was a favorite when I was a wee lad in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a comic that was delightfully of its time, a bit like Star Trek in espousing an ultra-liberal message with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. Even though Green Lantern himself was a bit too righteous and bland, I liked that he was obsessed with the color green and was rendered impotent by the color yellow. There was something surreal in that, and I find the insistence of realism in comics to be a huge oxymoron. Perhaps that’s why the dark surrealism of Batman Returns did not bother me like it did mainstream audiences, comic book geeks, and militant pseudo-Christian organizations.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)Even though I will acknowledge that Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight (2008) was well crafted, it would not have worked without Ledger’s performance holding it together. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, however, pales compared to ‘s much more intense, internalized, subtle and complex Wayne. Finally, Nolan’s film feels like it has one subplot too many. Comparatively, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is a Continue reading BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE