25 March 2010

We Need to Talk About Timothy

Let's take a look at the film-making career of Tim Burton shall we?

I'd rather we didn't

This is the first in a series of waffles dedicated to the career of an individual director who I'd like to talk about. The focus will be on their directed features rather than any television, short films or producing work they may or may not have done.

So I thought I'd talk about the ups and downs of Tim Burton and the films he has made. This particular bit of waffle will focus mostly on his work as a feature director rather than his production work. Partially because it's the rules, and partially because The Nightmare Before Christmas is the best thing he's put his name to bar none and to compare his other work to it is a silly exercise so we won't.
Let's move on yes?

This guy likes it too

To begin...

Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

Now, I have to admit I didn't see this until very recently. Well, not entirely. I saw a chunk of it when I was younger but never really got around to sitting down and watching the full film so I finally did it. And guess what, I loved it!

Oh stawp

Pee Wee's Big Adventure by all accounts should not work. Or at least, should not have such wide appeal. It's very rare that a manchild character (especially one as giggly, energetic and gurning as Pee Wee) is not irritating and annoying to the core. Pee Wee manages to be fun and hilarious and silly in a completely enjoyable way. I don't know what the formula is but Burton and Reubens (Pee Wee) cracked it with this movie.

Thumbs up for Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

Beetle Juice (1988)

Funny, IMDB seems to insist this is called "Beetle Juice" but I've always thought it was "Beetlejuice". I usually tend to trust IMDB with stuff like this so I took a look at the cover:


Ok...hmm... well then. Still, I'll stick with IMDB on this. It's usually best to trust it as an authority.
Anyway, yes! I think this might actually be my favourite of Burton's works. Aside of course for the aforementioned Nighmare Before Christmas. I watched the animated series a lot when I was a kid. (I notice IMDB has gone with "Beetlejuice" for that! Hmmm.) This was the early 90s though, when everything seemed to have an animated series based on it. I really liked that show as a kid. I haven't seen it lately, I wonder if it holds up. Anyway, I was aware that there was a film version and one day the TV started advertising that it would be on. So of course we taped it and I watched it endless times.

I really like Beetle Juice! (That still looks wrong to me.) The signature Burton spooooky German expressionist influenced design feels very natural here. It's actually tied to the plot quite well. The atmosphere and music compliment each other perfectly, far more successfully than any of his other films I think, except perhaps Batman. And of course Michael Keaton is on fire as the title character. It's rare that a zaaany eccentric character like this makes a film as much as the producers would like to think. But here it really works. He's funny, hypnotic, intriguing and sinister. Completely lovable without ever losing his status as the villain. That isn't to say the film would survive without the rest of the cast. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are brilliant as the innocent leads. Winona Ryder gives a great mopey performance. Glenn Shaddix is hilarious, Jeffrey Jones is a great as the suffering husband and Catherine O'Hara is BRILLIANTLY obnoxious. This is a great cast!

Oh, and let's not forget...


Thumbs up for Beetle Juice.

Batman (1989)

Let me start with a metaphor:

If I take this image of Batman...
...and then lighten it...
...and then decide to darken it again...
...it is not the same image I started with.

This is how I see Tim Burton's version of Batman.
Hey, look. When I was young I did like it. I actually saw Batman Returns first believe it or not. Videos and TV and the like. I watched this film many times. But I've grown up now, and I've learned plenty since.

Looking at it now, I like a lot of the imagery. I like the music, I like some of the design. I think Jack Nicholson did a really good job and I quite like Michael Keaton's performance too. But guess what. It ain't Batman. I'm sorry, but it's not. You can argue preference, success, enjoyment etc. until your face turns blue. But if you tell me that is Batman up there you're wrong. There is one big reason for this. Batman doesn't kill people. Burton's Batman does. You could argue that I'm being picky here. That I'm not jumping on the difference of design from comic book to screen. I'm not against the origin stories changing, or the fact that the Joker's past is clearly defined. But I really think my problem is a fair one. I consider it to be a fundamental aspect of the character. When he's boiled down, this is what he's about. As fundamental as Superman flying or Spider-Man climbing walls. If you're not including them then why make the film?

For me it comes down to arrogance. It feels that Burton has not followed the two Rs of comic book adaptation: Research & Respect. (Yes I just made those up.) He seems to have followed some Rs of his own: Rudeness & Relentless getting Batman wrong. To me, it appears that Burton was never a reader of the comics. Which is fine, but upon being given the film to direct he made no effort to research and get to the bottom of the character and instead relied on his own experience which was the 60s Adam West TV series. Rather than exploring the darkness of the original source material, he opted to darken the lightened image from the TV show. No research of the character and no respect for the fans.

If you could fit a few
puns in here that'd be great

Thumbs down for Batman.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

The one that started his relationship with Johnny Depp. A good start it was! Edward Scissorhands is top stuff. Frankenstein meets suburban America meets Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari. A lot of Burton's work meets The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari though.

I think he likes this movie

While Edward Scissorhands does feature Tim Burton's story telling flaws. In that, he has trouble holding a story together. Think about it for a second. His films tend to be quite fragmented and don't have a strong story arc to them. Some of them flourish in this environment and some of them die. Edward Scissorhands doesn't flourish as much as some of his other work, but it certainly holds up.

Despite story problems, I really love this. The painted skies and pastel colours work really well against the inky black context of Edward. Depp's broken innocent performance is heartbreaking and again, everyone here is bringing their A game. I particularly like Dianne West as Peg and Vincent Price's brief part. The scene of his death and the ending of the film are both truly beautiful. Really great.

I was in it too

Thumbs up for Edward Scissorhands.

Batman Returns (1992)

Let me start with a metaphor:

If I take this image of Batman...
...and then lighten it...
...and then decide to darken it again...
...it is not the same image I started with.

Well, this may be the first Tim Burton film I ever saw. Possibly... who knows, I can't actually remember for sure. It's definitely one of the first. I borrowed the tape from my cousin and I liked it back then and there's elements I like now. It still contains (and magnifies) the big problem I have with his first Batman film. It's not Batman. You might say I'm being too harsh with this but really I don't think I am. Anyway, this movie is a weird one I think. I probably prefer it to the first one. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is very good and very close to the character. I like Danny DeVito's Penguin despite him being horrifying and twisted beyond belief. Most bizarre really is probably the inclusion of Christopher Walken playing a character named after this guy:

Wait... are you telling me
Tim Burton is a fan of
German Expressionist film?!

Now I like Christopher Walken a lot (who doesn't!?) but I find his character in this film a little bizarre. Mostly because his costume and hair are so unbelievably ridiculous he's impossible to take seriously as a scary villain.

I'll eat your fucking children

And this brings me to my main issue with this film. Burton's German expressionist film influences are far too overstated here. It's dizzying to watch. Also the whole penguin crap makes no bloody sense. There are things I like and things I don't. And also Batman jokes about killing people. Not cool.

Thumbs shaky for Batman Returns.

Ed Wood (1994)

Edward Woodenhands

Edward D. Wood Jr. Affectionately called the worst filmmaker of all time. His most famous work is the science-fiction horror Plan 9 from Outer Space. A classic in awful ridiculously bad cinema. But charming nonetheless.

Burton's tribute to his legacy is great. While it provides giggles (it's hard not to laugh at some of the crazy notions Wood had) it never looks down on its central character and depicts him as a character of pure optimism. Johnny Depp returns and does a good job as the strange man but the real star here is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Some of Landau's scenes are genuinely moving and the film acts as a loving tribute to a true horror legend who was cast aside when Hollywood had no more use for him.

Bela Lugosi's Dead

Also Bill Murray's always a good idea.

Thumbs up for Ed Wood.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Burton's love of Plan 9 from Outer Space is clearly influencing the design of this film. The Martian spaceships and gadgets are heavy with inspiration from 1950s and 1960s science-fiction. I find that people often don't like this film. Not really sure why. Sure it's got Burton's classic story problems. After the Martians arrive, the story stops. But hey, there's a lot to like. The Martians themselves are hilarious, as is Jack Nicholson. I love Michael J. Fox and Annette Bening and the fact that they're eventually destroyed by horrible country crooning is just the right amount of silly. Yes!

I had nothing to do with it

Interesting trivia. I read somewhere once. I can't guarantee it's true but I still like it. Supposedly the original plan for Mars Attacks! was to give it a Christmas release and this is why all the human skeletons are either green or red when they're killed. Adds a festive touch don't you think?

Thumbs up for Mars Attacks!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I saw this thing years ago and to be perfectly honest. I barely remember it. It's hard for me to tell you if it's good or not because of how little memory I have of it. Maybe the fact that I have such difficulty remembering anything says something about its entertainment value.

The main thing I remember is that Christopher Walken didn't look scary at all in the flashback sequences when he had a head. Christopher Walken is scary on his own. When he's done up to look like a monster that scariness is diminished. He just comes out looking silly.

I'll eat your fucking children

Thumbs uncertain for Sleepy Hollow.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Or as I like to call it "Planet of the Terrible Fucking Film"
Seriously, I hate this. As far as I'm concerned this is Burton's worst film. I saw this before I saw the original film so no claim can be made that while watching it I was forever comparing it to the superior classic. I just felt the ball was dropped on every level. So much of this makes literally no sense. The story and characters are a complete mess, the dialogue is laughable and the ending is a supreme moment of pushing a mystery too far.

I found it offensive

Speaking of the ending actually, this video should be watched. I obviously don't think Burton stole the ending but it gives a good insight into his arrogance and foolishness (especially when it comes to Batman.) Watch:

Eh? Eh!?
But yeah, while I do like Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter I do think they sucked in this. The only person not dropping the ball is probably Tim Roth but even still it's so badly written it doesn't make a difference. As well as all this, I think the amount of work put into teaching the actors move like real apes worked in detriment to the final piece as a lot of the characters just seem silly the way they move. It doesn't work. Maybe this time Burton did too much research. Who knows.

The worst part though, by a long shot, is the inclusion of this asshole:

Dammit Chuck!

Charlton Heston has a brief cameo in this film. Now, I'm not against giving him a cameo per se but it turned out to be one of the most offensive things in it. He plays the Tim Roth's old dying father whom Roth approaches for advice. What does Ol' Chuck suggest? Oh, take this amazing super tool that is brilliantly powerful and fantastic and will help you win:

It's a gun

This is wonderful considering at the time of filming, Charlton Heston was the president of the National Rifle Association of America.

Apparently so

Thanks Chuck. Thanks a bunch. I'm glad you're dead.

Thumbs down down down for Planet of the Apes.

Big Fish (2003)

More entertaining than this thing,
believe it or not!

First time I saw Big Fish was for an essay on utopia in college. I knew a little bit about the film and knew it had certain utopian themes so I gave it a rent. My essay was terrible but the film was great! I really like Ewan McGregor and the visuals were strangely reminiscent of Pee Wee's Big Adventure. This is a good thing.

What you get here is a prime example of Tim Burton using his weaknesses as well as his strengths well. His story telling problems are catered for by structuring the film in such a way that it doesn't matter and, in fact, helps the film breathe.

I honestly don't have a whole lot to say on this one except that I really like it and consider it an exception to my general view that Tim Burton's later work is not as interesting as his earlier work.

Thumbs up for Big Fish.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

As we're getting closer to the end I'm finding I have less and less to say. partially because I don't think these later films resonate nearly as much as the earlier ones, and as well as that I have far fewer personal stories to go with them. I went to the cinema. Wahey!!

And then I got popcorn!!!

Which brings me to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Earlier I said I don't remember Sleepy Hollow well. With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I do remember most of it, it just doesn't interest me much. This film is very unremarkable. Oh look there's the Oompa Loompas. There's the bit with the blueberry. Oh he fell in the chocolate river I remember that. It's just a film that begs the question of its own existance. The book and the original adaptation are so much more exciting and interesting to experience, this just sits as a sub-par version of both.

Part of the problem is that Burton's design elements are too unwieldy. It makes sense that Wonka's factory is full of wonder and fantastical rooms and crazy goings on. So when the outside world is all quirky and bizarre and strange, Wonka's factory just feels like more of the same. Why are the characters so taken aback by it? Their lives are like this all the time.

Oh great, another
Oompa Loompa song

I both like and dislike Depp in this one. I see what he's doing but it gets old pretty fast I must say. Also there's the huge plothole of his teeth. If he ran away from hom when he was a small boy because he hated his father's dentistry then how come his teeth are so perfectly veneered? Surely he'd have avoided dentists since? Eh? Think about it!

Thumbs down for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Corpse Bride (2005)

So yeah I remember this one coming out and all. There was some buzz about it due to it being animated and as previously mentioned, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the best thing he's ever done. The difference is though, he didn't directe The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he was directing Corpse Bride... I guess that difference matters.

I don't think it matters

Now, I did enjoy it to some degree. There's some fun to be enjoyed and Richard E. Grant is perfectly pompous as the villain. The problem here is the charm seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. Yeah the animation is incredibly adept (apart from the running, I mean, man) but that's not enough. A rough edge goes a long way and the edges of this are smoothed to a fault. Not only that but the story is all over the place. A complete mess! At the end of the day I think the mark was admirable but was still missed.
Thumbs down for Corpse Bride.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

This one took me a while to see. When it came out all the advertising just made it seem so Tim Burton by numbers. You have your kooky haired lead (played by Johnny Depp). You have Helena Bonham Carter playing a spooky lady and you have darkness and fancy design. Bob Byrne once wrote a comic talking about how much he hates when pop-punk bands cover classic songs as the whole process is redundant. If you think to yourself "Green Day covering House of the Rising Sun" you automatically hear it in your head. You don't need them to make it, you know how it sounds. A friend of mine who saw Sweeney Todd before me used that comic to describe it. "Just think to yourself 'Tim Burton directing Sweeney Todd' and you know what it's like." So I watched it. And he was right.

That isn't to say it's a wholly bad thing. It's just, predictable. The only real surprise for me was Sacha Baron Cohen's performance as the rival barber. But only because he was far more comical and bizarre than I thought he would be. I expected Sacha Baron Cohen to defy expectations... but he didn't. It was unexpected.

Have you ever seen
Ali G Indahouse?

It holds together though and I wouldn't put it as a black mark on his career. Just not a particularly interesting mark.

Thumbs sideways for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

And finally we come to Tim Burton's adaptation remake reimagining version of Alice in Wonderland. This one I saw on the day of release and there was (and still is) a lot of buzz in the air (and on the sides of buses) about it. So of course I rushed to see it.

The only word to describe Burton's Alice in Wonderland is underwhelming. I found it overdesigned and lacking a necessary substance. It felt to me to be a showreel for costume designers and visual effects artists. But allow me to explain some other issues I had...

The biggest one is the title. If you've watched the film you'll know that the narrative takes place after the time of the original story. Whether it's referring to the book or original Disney film as canon is unexplained, but also unimportant. The film is essentially and adaptation of the poem Jabberwocky re-appropriated as a sequel to Alice in Wonderland. So, with that in mind, why is it called Alice in Wonderland?! It almost implies that the intent is to replace the original story and/or film and if that is the case it's just plain offensive. A different title is needed. Thanks.

The other small issue I had was toward the end when Alice prepares to face the mighty Jabberwocky (incorrectly named I might add) he flies towards her in a big scary way, ready for the epic battle that the entire film has been leading up to. And then... he speaks!? With Christopher Lee's voice...? This completely jarred me in the cinema, I burst out laughing because it felt completely out of place for the creature to suddenly show such clear consciousness and intelligence. Why is he fighting her physically? From the way he speaks it seems like he'd destroy her in chess. Ill-advised I must say. Although not as ill-advised as the dance the Mad Hatter performs right afterwards. What was that? That jarred me further.

But hey it's not all bad. The cast I quite liked, apart from Crispin Glover's poor English accent. I really like him but that accent was dire. All the voice cast were great especially Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat. In particular I liked Alice. I've been a fan of Mia Wasikowska ever since her role in the first season of In Treatment. She was darn good. I really liked her performance as Alice. She gave it just the right amount of distance to keep us intrigued but was engaging enough to keep our trust. Brillo.

But that's not enough to save it. All in all I felt the film never really justified itself to me.

Thumbs mostly down for Alice in Wonderland.

That's the last guy who
dissed him on the internet

So that's all the films he's already made. But what about the future. There's talk of a film called Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the gothic soap opera of the same name. There's also been mention of a feature length animated adaptation of his short film Frankenweenie that has been circulating for years. I began writing this believing that Burton was planning to make a new film of The Addams Family but these rumours have since been proven false. So never mind all that.

You can put those away

What needs to be said though is, when you look at this overview, Burton is clearly far stronger when working on either original screenplays or working with something that's not as well known/liked/loved. I don't think it's simply a case of the inevitable comparisons that arise when a remake or adaptation of a classic occurs. I truly feel Burton's skills have lacked at these projects. I look forward to Dark Shadows because it is his first film in a while that the audience isn't expected to have a certain amount of knowledge about the source material. I'm also interested in Frankenweenie but that could be just because I have a soft spot for animation (could be something to do with having a degree in it, I don't know.) It also helps when he's not so damn arrogant.

Burton, I haven't written you off completely yet... but be careful alright?

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