Monday, October 31, 2016

The Strange and Unusual Golden Era of Tim Burton

With the Halloween season this week, as well as the recent release of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, now is an interesting time to look back on the early and undeniably-idiosyncratic career of one of the most unique and imaginative film directors of our era. Often known for his love of the macabre and the strange, Tim Burton has played a role in several different and specific genres and mediums (some of them all at once): animation, comedy, supernatural, horror, comic book, modern-day fantasy, and biopic. His early work from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties (1985-1994) specifically set the tone for his later works. Here's a look back at those films.

Pee-Wee Herman (a.k.a. Paul Reubens) in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Burton began his career as a Disney animator in the early-Eighties, with his short films "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie". Although not the first movie most people often think of from him, Burton's feature-film debut, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), stars the ever-popular man-child creation of Paul Reubens, who travels across country in a comedic quest to find his stolen bicycle. Echoing the classic sensibilities and physical humor of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis, this film also displayed Burton's visual style: bizarre, quirky, expressionistic, absurd, and all in the style of a live-action cartoon. And although it's essentially a comedy, Pee-Wee is kind of a hard film to categorize.

Pee-Wee experiences the dark side and the interesting side of the world as he meets an offbeat cast of characters, from ghostly truck drivers to criminals to bikers to Alamo tourists, all up to a memorable chase on the Warner Bros. lot (not seen on screen since Blazing Saddles in 1974). And as memorable as he is (the film has become a cult classic in the pop culture zeitgeist since then), Pee-Wee Herman is also one of the strangest characters ever brought to the screen, what with his quirky mannerisms and voice, not to mention his inventive household of toys and contraptions. (Remember his breakfast machine?) He even considers himself a "loner," despite his friendship with Dottie (who constantly begs him for a date to the drive-in) and sweet moments with diner waitress Simone (who dreams of going to France). It's no wonder the film's tagline on the poster read, "The story of a rebel and his bike" (possibly a silly play on James Dean or Marlon Brando).

Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas
Speaking of cartoon features, Burton would jump back and forth between live-action and animated projects over the years, specifically in the medium of stop-motion animation for the latter. And his style has mostly remained in tact, whether conceiving, producing and/or directing his pet projects The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), or a film version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), as well as his sophomore effort--a supernatural horror-comedy called Beetlejuice.

If Pee-Wee set a standard for Burton's brand of quirkiness, then Beetlejuice (1988) set a standard for his brand of macabre. In the same category as Ghostbusters made four years prior, this supernatural horror-comedy puts a twist on the "haunted house" notion, as a newly-deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Genna Davis) are "haunted" by the new owners of their home, and they don't really know what to do about it. As one character says, "live people ignore the strange and unusual." They soon call on a "freelance bio-exorcist" for help, only to find him as a ghoul with a wild and crazy (and perverted) personality.

Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice
Michael Keaton is a hoot as the titular character, and Bo Welch's production design give the film an animated zaniness and spookiness. Yet, the film laughs its way through misguided spirituality and convoluted perspectives on the afterlife. For one thing, it seems people in the latter apparently don't want those in the real world to know there is life after death. This knack of macabre, as well as misguided spirituality, would be evident in Burton's later horror-inspired films, such as Sleepy Hallow (1999), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Dark Shadows (2012).

For the first time since the release of Richard Donner's take on Superman in 1978, Batman (1989) became the quintessential film that set a new benchmark for what a comic book movie could be ("dark" and "definitive," as executive producer Michael E. Uslan describes). It was also a revolutionary achievement on so many levels, not least of which was the film's dark, expressionistic world of Gotham City (courtesy Oscar-winning production design by Anton Furst), the unconventional casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and the now-famous (and wordless) marketing emblem with the black bat symbol caged in gold.

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman
While not perfect, the film is poetically symbolic in illustrating characters with duel personalities, as well as themes in terror and danger, heroism and villainy, and the provocative debate of which character or notion creates which. Burton played a key role in this seminal redefining, and the film holds up to this day, despite its old-fashioned (and dated) moviemaking techniques and Prince music.

Burton did return for the sequel, Batman Returns (1992), and showcased characters with animal-like qualities and split personalities (The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin), which made the film intriguing. But it wasn't enough to make up for Burton's creative control going too far, resulting in a brooding, often nightmarish, cinematic atmosphere (another example of Burton's knack for the macabre).

Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands
Yet, between both of these films, Burton found time to bring to the screen another pet project, one that goes back to a drawing he reportedly made as a teenager. A contemporary version of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein set in suburban America (reportedly based off of Burton's hometown of Burbank, CA), Edward Scissorhands (1990) also stands as a modern day fairy tale. It illustrates Burton's recurring theme of lonely social outcasts--in this case, an incomplete (and imperfect) creation (Johnny Depp) with razors for hands, who is taken in by a kindhearted Avon lady (Dianne Weist) and falls in love with her daughter (Winona Ryder).

Like the titular character, the film is imperfect, and contains some unnecessary sexual content that's not family-friendly. It's also a bit violent at times, and even tragic (dare I say, depressing) with its lonely social outcast motif. But there are some, if not many, beautiful moments, such as the memorable scene where Ryder dances in the snow.

Burton would go on to direct other fantasy films (some, period fantasy), like Big Fish (2003), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). But he may not have made those films had it not been for Edward Scissorhands (and screenwriter/frequent collaborator Caroline Thompson), which still contains an odd sweetness and heartache unlike anything Burton had tackled before.

Johnny Depp in Ed Wood
The final genre in this look back is the biopic. And Burton found his niche in this genre by telling the fact-based story of Edward D. Wood, Jr., considered by many to be the worst film director of all time. Played flawlessly by Johnny Depp (in his second collaboration with Burton), Ed Wood (1994) tells the story of a passionate filmmaker unaware of his own flaws (he would reportedly do scenes in no more than one take, and even cross-dressed on occasion), who went on to direct such hated films as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Considered a love letter to B-movie cinema that will please die-hard cinephiles, it also features an Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau as the legendary-yet-aging-and-troubling Bela Lugosi. This notion of B-movie-making may have echoed into Burton's next feature, the mean-spirited special-effects comedy Mars Attacks! (1996), and he wouldn't return to the biopic genre for another twenty years, when Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski came to him with Big Eyes (2014), based on the true story of painter Margaret Keane.

Billy Crudup and Albert Finney in Big Fish
Burton's various works within those twenty years would be considered hit-or-miss--some critically-successful, some financially-successful, sometimes both. Some recommendable; others, not so much. But one thing is for certain: much like Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan, nobody makes films (including those from the first decade of his career) quite like Tim Burton, no matter how "strange and unusual."

Monday, October 24, 2016

REVIEW: "Sully," A Real Hero

There's a moment in Sully (based on the true story of flight captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger and the safe-landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009, in what became known as the "Miracle on the Hudson," resulting in the survival of all 155 passengers and crew on board) where one character says, in the aftermath of said event, "It's been a while since New York has news this good, especially with an airplane." Truth be told, 9/11 and this event were two headlined events in New York in the past decade. And while they were ultimately unexpected, both displayed signs of hope and courage because of those who made a difference in saving lives.
And while the new film, masterfully directed by Clint Eastwood, recreates this event (seen from different points-of-view throughout, with IMAX cameras), it also chronicles the investigation that took place in the aftermath. From the view of members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), computer simulations that recreated the flight indicated Sully would have (and should have) made it back to the nearest dock. This leads Sully (the always-up-to-it everyman Tom Hanks), who apparently suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to question if he carried out the right actions in what he described as "a forced water landing." He also contemplates the consequences that could come, not to mention the alternatives of what could have happened. (A few brief moments reveal 9/11-esque imagery.) As Sully states, despite his forty years of experience as a pilot, "In the end, I'm only going to be judged on 208 seconds [from the moment the plane lost both engines to when we actually landed]."

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart
Yet, halfway through the film, we get a perspective from that of the passengers aboard the flight that day, as well as from Air Traffic Control and first responders on the bay area. With that in mind, Sully showcases the definition of what it means to be a hero, including the actions and choices carried out in the process. Whether it's getting the job done, highlighting experience and instinct over numbers, or recognizing the role of humanity, Sully clarifies his role as somebody who was simply "doing his job". 

Sully, "a real hero"
In fact, during the hearings, Sully notes that the NTSB has "not taken into account the human factor." Sully even states that it wasn't a singular "miracle" (meaning that not one person was involved in saving everybody on board), but a collaborative one. To reiterate, "We [just] did our job." That being said, another thing Eastwood's film does really well (despite its 90-minute running time, which some may criticize) is that ordinary people can still do heroic things.

WRITER'S NOTE: The following track from 2010, by electronic bands College and Electric Youth, was partly inspired by the real-life events of this film. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pixar Filmography, Volume 4: "Finding Dory" Is A Worthy Addition

Although known primarily for their original films, Pixar Animation Studios has released a total of five sequels or prequels to only four of their films, from Toy Story to Cars to Monsters, Inc. (A third Cars is scheduled for release next year, and a sequel to The Incredibles is currently in the works.) Depending on who you ask or talk to, one is either astounded or let down by said follow-ups. And the studio's latest addition, a follow-up to their 2003 hit Finding Nemo, had initially fit that bill for some regarding the latter reaction. (I certainly went in with low-to-middling expectations.) In fact, director Andrew Stanton, who initially didn't plan on making another film, felt led to do so after viewing a 3D version of Nemo back in 2012 and reportedly believing that Dory's story was "unresolved". (Watch the interview and video here.)

The story is set one year after Marlin the clown fish (voiced by Albert Brooks) rescues his son Nemo (voiced by Hayden Rolence) from a dentist's office in Sydney, Australia. Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), who aided Marlin on his quest, begins having flashbacks of memories as a child, and of her parents and home she has long forgotten. She eventually has Marlin and Nemo return the favor by helping her in her own quest to find her family and therefore finding her home.

Dory as a child, with parents Charlie (left) and Jenny (right)
Dory eventually ends up in the Marine Life Institute in California and meets a chameleon-like octopus named Hank (voiced by Ed O'Neill) with an agenda of his own (not to mention a coffee pot he stores Dory in when they team up). Other new characters include near-sighted shark whale Destiny (voiced by Kaitlyn Olson) and beluga whale Bailey (voiced by Ty Burrell), sea lions Fluke and Rudder (voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West), and Dory's parents Charlie and Jenny (voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton).

Like the first film, Dory brilliantly illustrates individuals with disabilities (Dory's forgetfulness, Destiny's nearsightedness, Bailey's lost echo location abilities), as well as parents who worry for their children's lives (much like Marlin did for Nemo's previously). Yet, it also showcases the theme of fearlessness and determination, despite the inevitable fear of being forgotten as well as what it means to find "home". And in what may initially seem like a portrayal of an unsympathetic institution, several characters describe the Marine Life as a "fish hospital," with no signs of animal harm done by human characters (with the exception of a few slapstick pratfalls and physical comedy by said animals). In fact, the Institute's chief narration guide (one of the film's funniest gags, no spoilers) makes a point in saying, "It's our hope that every animal we rescue will one day be returned to the ocean," and topping it off with the Institute's theme of "rescue, rehabilitate [not keep captive], [and] release."

Hank and Dory
The animation is breathtaking, particularly the "Open Ocean" exhibit (pictured below), as well as the character animation of Hank (who steals every scene he's in). There are clever homages to previous Pixar films, such as the Kid's Zone recalling the Caterpillar Room toddlers from Toy Story 3. Returning characters include sea turtle Crush (voiced by Stanton) and sting ray teacher Mr. Ray (voiced by storyboard artist Bob Peterson). The preceding animated short Piper (like the previous short Lava, released before Inside Out) is a wonderful companion piece to Dory, telling the story a baby bird who overcomes his fear of the ocean waves and forms a friendship with a crab. And stay through the credits for some additional fun and surprises.

The "Open Ocean" exhibit
More importantly and surprisingly, Finding Dory simultaneously works as both a sequel and something of a prequel, as well as something of a spinoff and a worthy companion piece, a la The Godfather: Part II (1974) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980). In terms of further expanding its worlds and key characters, particularly its titular unforgettable heroine (who was voted on social media as the most liked Disney or Pixar character), Stanton and company have again succeeded, whether or not viewers will find it unforgettable.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

REVIEW: "Stranger Things" (2016)

Despite my admiration for certain T.V. shows from ABC to Nickelodeon to animated series growing up, I've always been more of a movie person (as those who know me really well can certainly tell you). But there are times when a series will really grab me or intrigue me, whether it's the quirky adventures of Doug Funnie on Nickelodeon or the comedic-dramatic day-to-day agendas of the Braverman family on Parenthood. Netflix's recent summer hit Stranger Things (the throwback brainchild of the Duffer Brothers) is the latest case in point.

The basic premise involves a boy named Will who mysteriously disappears one night while riding his bike home. As his worried mother and teenage brother, along with Will's three best friends (Mike, Lucas, and Dustin), set out to find him, the latter three find a mysterious girl where their friend disappeared. With a shaved head and lab gown, they soon discover that this girl (whom they name "Eleven," or "L") can do things with her mind, and even has the ability to make contact with those in another dimension, while on the run from mysterious testing-facility agents and a terrifying monster.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder)
Stranger Things is an amalgamation of sorts to 1980s popular culture and sci-fi/horror, from Steven Spielberg (E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies) and John Carpenter (The Thing, Starman) classics to "Dungeons and Dragons" to Stephen King novels, this highly engrossing series recalls the nostalgia of growing up in the aformentioned decade while emphasizing (and sometimes critiquing) the thematic undertones and events of the era. There's an interesting moment in the second episode (er, "chapter"), for instance, where one high school character describes another as "such a cliche". This moment represents the types of conventions seen in t.v. and film of the decade to the way said conventions are seen today, and then expanded upon.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)
While intriguing, extremely well-acted (most film buffs will recognize 80s stars Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine) and well-written (each episode, without spoiling, does end by promising the best is yet to come), this isn't a series for everybody. In fact, many scenes are very tense-ridden, including moments of pre-teenage kids in danger. (There's even an unnecessary moment that juxtaposes a teenage girl who loses her virginity, and another character who gets killed off in another dimension--possibly suggesting the end of innocence.) And as J.J. Abrams did with the equally-nostalgic Super 8 (of which this series may have also been partly inspired by), language, especially spoken by pre-teenage characters, is an issue. Nevertheless, the show's combination of coming-of-age childhood, science-fiction, and supernatural horror and phenomena is equally intriguing and scary. And that's something only a real film buff can say about a T.V. series inspired by the movies.

Monday, October 3, 2016

REVIEW: "Ghostbusters" (2016)

Since 1989's release of Ghostbusters II, fans have been hoping for a third outing in the franchise that began with the 1984 original, directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Dan Aykroyd, the late Harold Ramis (both the film's writers), Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray. All have been on board for a possible sequel between 1989 and 2014, except for Murray. Aykroyd was interviewed in the early 2000s and commented,

"Ghostbusters 3" will never happen. Unless Bill Murray agrees. Everyone else would love to do it--Columbia, [Harold Ramis], myself, [Ivan Reitman]. It's a five-way rights situation and Bill is locking up his piece of the rights because he feels that was work he just wants preserved and he doesn't want it diluted. As an artist I can respect that. (IMDb)

(l-r) Dan Achroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis in the 1984 original

Recalling the first two films, Murray once commented,

The first 45 minutes of the original Ghostbusters is some of the funniest stuff ever made. The second one was disappointing because the special effects guys took over. I had something like two scenes -- and they're the only funny ones in the movie. (IMDb)

One of the things that made the original such a hit (as well as a hilarious and scary special-effects comedy, the first of its kind) was the ad-libbing freedom the three main actors, particularly Murray, had in establishing the tone of the film, and not just their characters. There's an interesting video that talks about the outline and structure of the film, and how the initial draft differs heavily from the film many know and love today.

(l-r) Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig and Kate McKinnon in the 2016 version
The latest release from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy) does a reboot, as well as a gender-swap, by casting Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the quartet of paranormal exterminators in modern Manhattan. The filmmakers even went so far as reversing the secretary role, with Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, filling in for Annie Potts. Many fans were reportedly outraged when they heard the news, particularly when the first trailer premiered earlier this year. (It was soon ranked as one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history.) The original cast and crew including Murray, on the other hand, gave their endorsement (as seen in this video from Jimmy Kimmel last summer).

Both generations of casts on Jimmy Kimmel
(Front row, l-r: Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig;
Back row, l-r: Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Bill Murray) 
What puzzles me a bit is the contrast between the critical response and the audience response to this film (an opposite effect of what happened with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year). Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 73 percent "fresh" rating with a consensus that reads the film "does an impressive job of standing on its own as a freewheeling, marvelously cast supernatural comedy--even if it can't help but pale somewhat in comparison to the classic original," while IMDb gave it an audience score of 5.4 out of 10. That being said, it sometimes doesn't matter what the general public says about a remake or reboot or what have you, as long as the original creators appreciate what you do and give you their endorsement. In this case, the classic phrase, in a way, never sounded so good. "Who you gonna call? [The original] Ghostbusters!"

While it's not a perfect movie (and it does have its problems for discerning viewers, particularly in its often scary and scientific supernatural elements, as the first movie did), it does stand on its own while showcasing the brilliant comedic skills of its leading ladies, most of them SNL vets like their predecessors (who also make cameo appearances). (Wiig and McCarthy have worked with Feig in Bridesmaids; Jones exceeds expectations of those who considered her character a stereotype in the trailers, and McKinnon steals the show with her quirky deadpan, goggle-eyed expressions and mannerisms.) Even better, the film doesn't reduce them to mere female stereotypes as some might believe, but instead portrays them as hard-working and dedicated individuals. Plus, the film's special effects don't really get in the way of what they are capable of. And some of the effects are incredible to watch, although it would be hard to top the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer from the original.

("I couldn't help [saying that]. It just popped in there.")