Sunday, July 21, 2013

Beetlejuly: Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is Burton's return to his macabre roots. It marked the third time Johnny Depp appeared in one of his movies and the first time legendary actor Christopher Lee made an appearance in a Burton film. But aside from it being another adaptation of Washington Irving's classic tale, it's a film that will either have you captivated every second or puking in your popcorn bucket. This film is (literally) bloody, a blood fest, the darkest, most graphic version of Irving's tale that makes the Disney version look like the Barney movie. Sleepy Hollow has some of the most disturbing images ever shot for a motion picture and it's horrific nature may turn some people off of it all together. What do I think of the film? It's hilarious. I mean that, I really do. This is by far one of the most over the top movies I have ever seen and some of the film's scenes which are meant to be taken seriously fill me with tons of giggles. That doesn't mean the flick is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it just means that it comes off as more of a horror comedy in my eyes and with a film that has Christopher Walken with sharp teeth in his mouth shouting NAAAAAA! every couple of seconds, you are guaranteed to get quite a few laughs from the people in the audience. Sleepy Hollow is a blast of a movie and one of the very few modern horror films that I watch ever so often.

Johnny Depp portrays Ichabod Crane, only instead of being a schoolmaster like he was in the original novel, he is more of a police officer and detective. He is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders in which the victims' heads were severed from their bodies. At Sleepy Hollow, Johnny Depp meets several people including his eventual lover Katrina Van Tassel (played by Christina Ricci), Reverend Steenwyck (played by Jeffrey Jones), Masbath (played by Marc Pickering) and Katrina's father Baltus Von Tassel (played by Michael Gambon). Depp portrays Ichabod as an outspoken, no nonsense fellow who also has a tendency to get nervous and overexcited (much like Edward Scissorhands). But like many of the characters Depp portrays, Crane just wants to get to the bottom of things and succeed at whatever he wants to succeed at, using a set of nifty glasses and all. I love the scene where he is chopping at the horseman's tree and as he gets deeper and deeper, blood starts pouring out, some splashing on his face. He is shocked at first, but brushes the blood off as if it were nothing. Then all the horseman's severed heads come pouring out and Crane looks like he's going to puke at first, but he eventually gets ahold of himself and keeps his cool (yeh, I just found a bunch of severed heads, no biggy!) Several of the film's main players meet their end in this film, either by decapitation or another gruesome way. I like the way the Headless Horseman kills Richard Griffith's character, slicing his head off and causing it to spin on his body for several seconds just before letting it plop to the ground and picking it up with his sword. The Headless Horseman has got to be one of the swiftest villains in cinema history, moving as fast as Woody Woodpecker on an all sugar diet. With his head, he is portrayed by Christopher Walken in perhaps his most over the top performance. With a set of blackish eyes and pointy teeth, he'll stop at nothing to chow down on a woman's face or hurl his flaming jack o lantern at you to knock you out. And who could forget that classic "NAAAAAAAA!" noise he makes. He sounds reminiscent of the Frankenstein monster or Sloth from The Goonies. I'd like to see him order fast food from a drive thru window!

Without his head, he is portrayed by stuntman and martial artist Ray Park, who would also play Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace and Toad in X-Men. It's incredible how Park can move so fluently in that large black uniform and the way he waves that sword around, it's very reminiscent of how he wielded Maul's double bladed lightsaber. Speaking of Star Wars, the Emperor himself, Ian McDiarmid makes an appearance in this film as Dr. Lancaster who gets bashed over the head with a wooden cross. In the same scene, Baltus Von Tassel and Reverend Steenwyck meet their end at the hands of the Headless Horseman as the citizens of Sleepy Hollow watch in horror. It's scenes like this where I realize how scary and hilarious the film can be, for the Horsemen just storms into the church unexpectedly to claim a set of heads and leave (Thanks for the heads, bye!). All the time, the villagers are rioting and panicking as if the world's going to end. Then again, it's a guy with no head running around decapitating people. That comes close to the end of the world, don't you think? The look of Sleepy Hollow is your typical 1700s looking town, filled with dusty houses, elaborate stone grounds and deep, dark forests. I also think the film's late 90s computer effects are marvelous in their own right and give the film a bit more edge when it's in dire need of it. For example, there is a scene where a guy is sitting by the fire. He hears something outside and as he turns around, the fire blazes and for a split second, we can see several faces emerge from the fire. Talk about some freaky, deaky stuff! The scene where the Headless Horseman hurls his pumpkin is no where near as good as the pumpkin hurling in the Disney version, but it's still dazzling in all it's computer animated glory. But where the film really glimmers is it's buildup, suspense and savagery. You just don't know when that horseman will show up and when he eventually arrives, it's off with your head, CHACHINK! The most horrifying scene of the entire movie is the scene where the horseman arrives at a family home. The kid goes to hide underground as the horseman wipes out his parents. He decapitates the young boy's mother and her head rolls upon the floor, her eyes peaking through the wood boards. The horseman than goes to walk out of the house, just before busting through the floorboards and grabbing the young boy, riding into the night on his horse.

This film is without a doubt Burton's first slasher flick. Some of the techniques he used in this one would later be used in Sweeney Todd, but this is really his first film with a maniac murderer and a body count. Audiences had never seen something like this before from Burton and his love for the darkness made this film stick out from all the rest. Sleepy Hollow is a crazy flick with enough blood and gore to fill a swimming pool or two. It's suspense is legendary and it's death scenes are some of the greatest death scenes in any horror movie. It is also over the top to the point of comedy and even in the film's most serious scenes, there is always something to get a kick out of. The headless horseman, while an intimidating villain can be a goofball and a bit of a shrieking brute and Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane is one anxious, yet optimistic fellow, just as Washington Irving originally conceived the character. This is one of those movies I like to watch at Halloween each year and every time I watch it, I'm ready to embrace it's terrifying nature and it's cheesiness all at once. It's a chilling, thrilling and fulfilling experience that has my mouth gaping open every time I watch it. It may not be one of my absolute favorites, but it's still a treat to behold and a different take on a classic horror story.

After Sleepy Hollow, Burton was ready to take his first whack at the sci-fi genre. Toon in next time and we're heading to a planet full of apes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beetlejuly: Mars Attacks!

If I had to think of an alternate title for Mars Attacks!, I would probably call it BIG HEADED ALIENS KILL PEOPLE. That's basically the entire movie in a nutshell. Not to say that the movie is bad, in fact, it's far from it, but Mars Attacks! is a movie that I haven't rewatched until recently and to be honest, it's not one of my favorites. Don't get me wrong, I still like the movie, probably as much as Burton's Alice in Wonderland (we'll get to that one someday), but when you get down to it, it's just aliens mercilessly killing people, nothing more than that. The film is based upon a trading card series by Topps and the idea to bring the card series to the big screen came when Jonathan Gems (the guy who wrote the script for the Beetlejuice sequel that never got made) pitched the idea to Tim Burton in 1993. Burton was originally offered two trading card series to make into a movie, Mars Attacks! and the just as popular Dinosaurs Attack!, but Burton chose Mars Attacks! because he thought that a Dinosaurs Attack! movie would be too similar to Jurassic Park. The film was to be a homage to the classic B movies of the 1950s and the original intention was to use stop motion for the alien creatures in a similar style to Ray Harryhausen. But the film's budget got out of hand and Burton and his crew called in Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to animate the film's aggressive quacking aliens. This movie has a huge cast, probably bigger than the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past movie. There's Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny Devito, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Jack Black, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, Lisa Marie, even the great voice actor Frank Welker who provides the voice of the martians. And Sylvia Sidney (Juno from Beetlejuice) makes an appearance as a senile, yet lovable grandmother who's love for Slim Whitman ultimately proves vital in the martians' defeat. Mars Attack! may not be a favorite of mine, but it's still entertaining and fun to watch and harkens back to classic sci-fi movies of the past, like Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and most prominently, the many versions of War of the Worlds. 

I'll start off by saying that I like the look of the martians, big brains and all. You can really tell that the people at ILM observed the trading cards carefully and added every last detail to their extra terrestrial bodies. The aliens have bulging eyes, flowing capes, large craniums and faces resembling skulls. The quacking noise they make when they talk can get under some people's skin, but I didn't mind it. Aliens from other worlds always have some different form of communicating and this was really no exception. As stated before, the original intention was to make the aliens stop motion, similar to the late great Ray Harryhausen. Burton contacted Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas to make the stop motion, but he was busy shooting James and the Giant Peach and eventually, the stop motion plans fell through. Nevertheless, ILM did an excellent job of making the aliens look "fake" and "out of place" and in many ways, they look like stop motion puppets instead of creations in a computer. The aliens are some of the most heartless creatures I've ever seen on screen. They stop at nothing to zap humans with their laser guns and at times, they play with the humans, tricking them and zapping them dead when they least expect it. They treat Earth like a playground, killing humans every second they get and destroying buildings like kindergarteners destroy towers of blocks. They use lasers to replace the president heads of Mount Rushmore with martian heads, disguise themselves as beautiful women and even try to assassinate the president, played by Nicholson. These beasts are relentless and don't care who they have to harm to get their way, just as long as they cause as much chaos and destruction as possible. Not even a nuclear bomb can stop these guys, they take that bomb and use it like a helium balloon, using it to pitch up their voices. What unstoppable, heartless machines these guys are!

Many of the film's main players meet their end at the hands of these aliens. I LITERALLY mean that when I say it, for just about every character in this movie is either fried by an alien laser or killed off in the aliens' reign of havoc. I'm willing to bet that some of the actors were put in this movie solely to get killed off, very much like Alfred Hitchcock would do with his movies. Jack Black is in about 3 scenes of the movie before he bites the dust and Michael J. Fox is in about 10 minutes (overall) of the film before he gets turned into a deep fried green skeleton. Sarah Jessica Parker's is taken to the alien mothership where her head is placed on the body of her chihuahua and her chihuahua's head is placed on her body. Pierce Brosnan's character is also brought to the mother ship and becomes bodiless, but that doesn't stop him from expressing romantic interests in Parker's character. Glenn Close gets a chandelier dropped on her, Danny Devito gets flame broiled, Martin Short gets bamboozled and in attempts to make peace with the aliens and their leader, Jack Nicholson gets himself impaled, much to the aliens' satisfaction. In fact the only people who really survive are the kids, one of which is played by a young Natalie Portman. This is back before Portman hit it big with the newer Star Wars films as well as Black Swan, but she's not bad in this movie. She plays the rebellious teenage daughter of Nicholson and Close, but she still wants to help out when the aliens strike and she eventually prevails when both her parents are killed off. The only adults to survive are the ones played by not so well known actors, and to be fair, their not bad either. Jim Brown, a running back for the Cleveland Browns portrays Byron Williams, a man who works at a casino, has a wife and kids and a determination to get home to them, even in all the alien conundrum. He teams up with several others and using their quick thinking and tactics, they are able to take out several of the aliens. They even use the aliens' own laser guns against them. How brilliant that the humans use the aliens' own weapon to defeat the aliens themselves. It's refreshing to see the humans finally overpower the aliens and turn them into mush. It goes to show that no matter how powerful the enemy may seem, the good guys can always take them out, using the power of their braincells.

Sylvia Sidney portrays Grandma Florence and even if her mind is in another place, she still is a likable, lovable grandmother that helps in the destruction of the aliens. Along with her grandson, they discover that Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call" can make the aliens' heads explode and as they drive throughout the town blasting the music, it puts an end to many of the aliens and saves the city from total destruction. Eventually, the military broadcasts the tune all throughout the globe, ridding Earth of the aliens and saving it at last. Grandma and her grandson, Richie are then given medals of honor by Portman's character for their discovery on how to defeat the aliens and a mariachi band plays The Star Spangled Banner on the shattered remains of the capitol. It's a humorous ending to a dark humor movie, but one that has nice stuff to look at and enough sci-fi to satisfy any sci-fi appetite. Mars Attacks!, while not one of my all time favorites is still an enjoyable movie with eye candy and appealing imagery every minute or two. I doubt anyone will be bored with it and I think the kiddies will enjoy every morsel the film has to offer, but I really don't have all that much to say about it myself. I guess the only other thing I should mention is that it marked the return of Danny Elfman to Burton's films and his score for this film, while not his best is delightful in some areas and worth a listen, if you can find the isolated soundtrack. I should also mention that there is a brilliant homage to Earth vs. The Flying Saucers in which a flying saucer crashes into the Washington Monument, just like a flying saucer did in that film. I've heard Ray Harryhausen wasn't fond of this, but he eventually came to appreciate the tribute and become good friends with Burton. Still, the saucer crashing into the Washington Monument is a brilliant sight in the movie and a triumph for ILM.

If you're a sci-fi person and want to kill an afternoon by watching a sci-fi flick you haven't seen before, give Mars Attacks! a try. It's not the best, but it's far from the worst. It's action packed and far from boring. Tune in next time and we'll take a look at Burton's return to the world of macabre in a retelling of a classic tale.

Beetlejuly: Ed Wood

In the early 90s, Tim Burton was quite busy. He was shooting Batman Returns, producing The Nightmare Before Christmas and was in preproduction on a biopic based on "the worst director of all time". Thus, in 1994, Ed Wood was released by Disney's subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, who distributed Nightmare a year earlier. The film would be Johnny Depp's second outing with Tim Burton and the first time Danny Elfman did not produce a score for one of Burton's films. Instead, the film's score was produced by Howard Shore, who would later go on to score the epic music for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The film also stars Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones and Martin Landau in the role that would earn him an Academy Award. Believe it or not, Ed Wood is a Burton film I haven't seen until recently, and to put it plain and simple, it's a bag of laughs. I've already gone on saying that Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice are two of my favorite comedies of all time, but after seeing this flick a few times now, I can honestly say that I would place Ed Wood up there as well. It's no wonder why Disney distributed this film under Touchstone, for there are enough f-bombs and adult jokes in this film to fill a pool. If you are easily offended by profound language and inappropriate quirks, this film might not be your cup of tea, but if you are in the mood for something with perfectly timed humor and buffoonery, this might be your jackpot. I laughed out loud in several areas of this film and have come to realize that Tim Burton, in his own right, is not only the master of macabre, but the master of comedy and well skilled in giving you something to giggle about. 

I feel that in order to talk about the movie itself, I must talk about who the movie is in fact based on. The film is based on Edward D. Wood Jr, an American screenwriter, producer and director who has been widely regarded as the absolute worst in all of these areas. His films include Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls and the colossal cult film Plan 9 From Outer Space. He was also a heterosexual cross dresser and member of the United States Marine Corps, which are addressed on numerous occasions throughout the coarse of the film. I have to admit, I have come to admire Ed Wood and his filmmaking taste, but I'm not the biggest fan of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It certainly wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen, but I couldn't really get pulled into it as much as I wanted too. The film bored me in some areas and most of the movie seemed like just a bunch of people talking and talking and talking. Again, it wasn't the worst, but it's certainly not a favorite of mine. If your curious and want a oddball flick to check out, knock yourself out. Perhaps you will have a different view of the film than I did. Anyway, back to Ed Wood. 

As I said before, I admire Ed Wood's passion and perseverance for his work. Johnny Depp does a swell job of portraying Ed as a headstrong, optimistic person who always likes to look on the brighter side of things. When things go haywire for him (and trust me, things go haywire for him quite often in this movie), he still keeps that confident attitude and always finds a way to make it all work out in the end. Sure, things don't turn out flawlessly, but Wood realizes that and knows that it's not the teeny, tiny mistakes that matter, it's the entire big picture. He knows that things won't always live up to his original vision, but that doesn't mean he won't fight for his vision. We see him do an awful lot of fighting for HIS control over HIS projects despite the constant interference from studio executives and managers. As Orson Welles himself tells Ed in the movie, Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making somebody else's dreams? Ed Wood is the perfect example of how a person can make things happen THEIR way and it's certainly something Walt Disney himself would be proud of. Wood demonstrates that even when you're considered a talentless, ecocentric moron, you can still make a difference and reach out to people, probably in ways you least expect. Ed Wood certainly reached out to people in ways he least expected and even if he is considered to be the worst director of all time, his work found an ever-growing audience and fan base who cherish and admire his work for the imperfect work that it is. Nothing is or will ever be perfect and Wood realized that. He knew there would be difficulties, he knew there would be detractors, but that didn't stop him and his passion. He just kept looking down that road and continued doing what HE thought was right. He ignored all the hate and continued doing what he loved. That, my friends is a great lesson for all of us. 

 I personally think that Ed Wood is one of Johnny Depp's greatest performances and every time I see him in the role, I just get a good feeling, a feeling of confidence and giddiness. Just look at that smile, you can just tell that he's having a good time! 

Johnny Depp is a wonder in this movie, but he's not the only one with profound talent. Martin Landau portrays Bela Lugosi, the actor who will forever be merged with Dracula. He formulated the Dracula we are all familiar with today and Landau is spectacular portraying Lugosi as an ill tempered, yet determined, wise mentor to Ed. Tim Burton based the relationship between Ed and Bela off of his own relationship with his idol, Vincent Price and you can really see how much the two care for one another as the film plays out. Bela believes in Ed and knows that he is capable of a lot of things, and Ed really wants to make Bela the star he once was, despite Bela's addiction to morphine and proneness to swearing. Ed constantly has to watch over Bela and it's heartbreaking to see the poor fellow go downhill as the film unfolds. The pain Ed feels when Bela eventually dies is very saddening and you can really see why he wants to get Plan 9 From Outer Space made, to pay tribute to the legendary actor and give him a proper swan song. Whenever a sad scene occurs with Bela Lugosi, Tchaikovsky's main theme for Swan Lake plays, the same theme that is heard in the beginning of the 1931 Dracula which made Bela Lugosi synonymous with the name Dracula. Sometimes, while I'm watching the movie, I forget that it's Martin Landau and think that I am watching Lugosi himself. Landau is spot on capturing every mannerism, word rhythm and movement Lugosi was known for, not to mention that Landau's makeup, done by Rick Baker makes him the spitting image of Lugosi. Landau's performance as Bela Lugosi and Rick Baker's makeup earned them both Academy Awards and helped make Lugosi known for a new movie going audience. In some ways, this film introduced people to the original Dracula and other such Lugosi films and helped people realize what a talented and dignified actor he really was. Lugosi was truly an icon, and Landau was marvelous playing him. 

All the other actors are spot on as well. Bill Murray is hilarious as Bunny Breckinridge, Ed's openly-gay friend and Lisa Marie (Burton's then lover) does a fantastic job as Maila Nurmi aka Vampira, capturing her calm yet outspoken nature. Sarah Jessica Parker's character of Dolores Fuller can be a bit loudmouthed and annoying at times, but she's not all that bad and she's gone by the film's closing act. Patricia Arquette, who played the main heroine in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors portrays Ed's second girlfriend Kathy and she's for the most part much more calm and understanding than Parker's Dolores. But the character I found most striking was Jeffrey Jones' character Jeron Konig, also known as The Amazing Criswell. He's the guy who gives the film's opening speech and comes off as an exuberant fellow who believes he can see the future. He even helps Ed find financiers for his movies and even acts in some of his movies, most notable Plan 9's opening scene. Yes, this film has quite an array of cast members and most of them are pretty good if not very good. 

The film really makes me feel like I'm in the 1950s time period. The scenery is old fashion looking, filled with old cars and like Vincent and Frankenweenie, the black and white really gives the film a style and retro feel. There's even a joke in the film that caters to the black and white look and pokes fun at it. Nevertheless, it's a nice touch to the movie and helps us get sucked into the 1950s time period. I also like the film's opening title sequence, filled with fake looking tombstones, an octopus and Howard Shore's whimsical soundtrack. If you were to listen to his score for this movie and his score for The Lord of the Rings movies, you probably wouldn't guess that they were done by the same guy. Yeh, I know the films are from different genres thus need a different tone, but it just goes to show that Shore can pull off different film scores that fit in greatly with the films themselves. It's a rather funny and quirky score, something reminiscent of an old monster movie from the 1950s-60s timeframe and each scene is greatened with his weird, wacko score playing in the background. It's enjoyable and unlike any other soundtrack for any other movie. 

This is certainly one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Even in some of the film's more serious scenes, there are bits of humor and funny stuff to smile at. Landau's Lugosi is a billion laughs and likes to spew a cuss word every now and then and the guy who invests in Glen or Glenda is an ill tempered loudmouth who also likes to curse and chow down on grub. The scenes where Ed dresses like a girl will have you silent for a few moments, then hit you with a bolt of laughter. I also like the scene where Ed and his crew break into a butchery to steal a giant octopus and as they cut it down off the ceiling, it falls on Tor Johnson, the film's corpulent, yet memorable wrestler character. Of course Tor doesn't die in the sequence, but the buildup to his emergence from the octopus' bottom is legendary and worth a chuckle. And I don't know about you, but I always get a kick out of the scene where Bela fights the octopus in the water and has to move the octopus' tentacles himself, as if the dead octopus is wrapping his tentacles around him. Talk about cheesiness! In fact, that's a word that best sums up this film, cheesiness. It has a lot of moments that aren't meant to be taken seriously and the serious scenes always have something to laugh over. It's acting is top notch and over the top at times, but always manages to get it's point across and the characters' motivations straight. It has that balance of comedy, suspense, drama and imagination, but is all in all a fun, hilarious and powerful motion picture with a lot of memorable moments. Ed Wood hit the spot for me and I hope it can hit the spot for you. It goes to show what comedies are capable and what the brilliant mind of Tim Burton is capable of. 

Tune in next time and we'll talk about a movie based off cards. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beetlejuly: The Nightmare Before Christmas

During Burton's time at The Walt Disney Company, he experimented with not only short films, but literature and poetry. After completing Vincent in 1982, Burton wrote a three page poem inspired by classic holiday stories like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas. Thus, the poem that eventually evolved into the film, The Nightmare Before Christmas was born and Burton's original intention was to turn the project into a television special with Vincent Price returning to be the special's narrator. Another intention was to adapt the poem into a child's storybook. Burton went as far as to design storyboards and character models for his poem and Disney considered adapting The Nightmare Before Christmas into a short subject or a half hour long television special. But Disney's plans fell through the floor and Burton decided to leave the company altogether in 1984, going onto direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure and other films since. But as the years went by, Burton's mind constantly shifted back to The Nightmare Before Christmas and after the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Burton decided that he was going to adapt it into a stop motion movie that showed the capabilities of practical effects and filmmaking techniques that were pioneered with Roger Rabbit. However, there was a huge problem. Burton had previously signed on to direct Batman Returns over at Warner Bros. and he didn't want to be involved with the tedious and time consuming art that is stop motion animation. So, he handed the director's cap over to his good friend from CalArts, Henry Selick who was an expert in the field of stop motion animation and did several stop motion sequences for MTV and various television commercials. Selick and his crew drew inspiration from the great Ray Harryhausen as well as Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss and were determined to make the film as cinematic and contemporary as possible, even if it was shot with models, frame by frame. Thus, production on The Nightmare Before Christmas began in 1991 and lasted almost two years. Over 100 artists were required to bring the film's 227 puppets to life and even PIXAR and Disney's CAPS process were used in some areas of the film (according to the end credits). Nevertheless, The Nightmare Before Christmas was released on October 29th 1993 and became a massive cult hit among many movie goers. Some say it's Burton's best film, some say it's their favorite film of all time, I think it's not only one of Burton's best, it's one of my favorite films of all time and there is a funny story on how it got there.

As I stated before, I wasn't fond of Burton films when I was growing up. There were elements in Pee Wee Big's Adventure and Beetlejuice that terrified the crap out of me and The Nightmare Before Christmas was like an entire movie of those elements. At 3 or 4 years old, I caught a glimpse of my older brother and cousins watching this film in a dark basement and although I was fascinating with the film's intro with the holiday trees and flying ghosts, I caught a glimpse of this terrifying sight.

I am the one hiding under your bed, teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red! 

I screamed bloody murder and called for my mother who rushed down to the basement and took me upstairs. Even if I calmed down after several minutes, that image of the monster was burnt into my noggin and horrified me every time I thought of it. Even the look of the film's VHS case scared the daylights out of me for some reason and in a fit of rage and fear, I destroyed the outer covering of the VHS case, which is a shame because looking back on it, the VHS case did have some nice artwork to marvel at. But it's good to know that I still have the VHS tape and after nearly 20 years, it still works. 

Disney knew this film would be a little too scary and intense for younger viewers, which is why they distributed Nightmare under their Touchstone Pictures banner instead of their common Disney banner. I absolutely wanted nothing to do with Nightmare and cringed every time the film was mentioned. However, on one summer's evening, right before my brother's soccer game, him and I gave the film a watch and after several years of shunning this movie, I was ready to give the film another viewing. What was my response. I laughed my rear end off. I thought the film was hilarious. The scene where Jack scares an arguing Lock, Shock and Barrel made me snicker hysterically and the children's reactions to Jack's demented Christmas gifts were as hilarious as a Looney Tunes cartoon. I thought the film was nothing more than a comedy and in many ways, it's still a comedy with funny elements to make the viewers pee their undies. But in recent years, the film held a certain sedimental value to me. As a person who at times felt like an outcast and dealt with depression, I couldn't help but relate to Jack Skellington and his "longing" for something more. When Jack enters Christmastown, he's immediately infatuated with the fantasy land, just like I would if I were to stumble onto it's snow covered grounds. And the fact that Jack becomes obsessed with Christmas and all that it stands for mirrors my obsession with action figures, movies and literature. He tries to teach his friends back in Halloweentown all about Christmas, just like I would try to teach my friends and family about certain movies and comic book characters, sometimes to their annoyance. Jack also studies everything Christmas related in attempts to discover the holiday's true meaning, similar to how I would watch movies and analyze everything they had to offer. As you might have guessed, this would be one of the films I carefully observed. 

As I watched the film more and more throughout the years, I came to realize just how breathtakingly brilliant and incredible it was. The stop motion animation is very lifelike and still holds up today. It's obvious Burton, Selick and company drew inspiration from the Rankin Bass stop motion classics as well as the drawings of Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss. Everything moves so fluently and at times, you forget the characters are even puppets at all. Just imagine how much time and effort it took to make each character move in such a realistic, stylized fashion. You can tell that the stop motion animators had great pride and passion for their work and all their hard work paid off in the end, for the stop motion in this film is probably the greatest stop motion I have ever seen in a motion picture. The music, by Danny Elfman is up there with Edward Scissorhands as his greatest work. This is the first time we actually hear Danny Elfman's singing voice on film, for he provides the singing voice for Jack Skellington, spoken in normal voice by Chris Sarandon. If you heard any of his music for Oingo Boingo, then you know what you're in for and I can almost guarantee that each one of the film's songs will be trapped in your head hours and hours after the film has concluded. My favorite song of the film is probably "Jack's Obsession", for it shows just how fascinated Jack is with Christmas and how determined he is to discover what it's all about. Catherine O'Hara (Delia from Beetlejuice) also does a good job as Sally, carrying the gentle nature and sweetness of the artificial woman. She also has a good singing voice, for she sings "Sally's Song" of how she loves Jack and fears for him as he goes out to deliver the demented Christmas gifts. Ken Page voices Oogie Boogie and pays homage to Cab Calloway and his appearance in the classic Betty Boop cartoon, The Old Man of the Mountain. There's just something about a character made entirely of bugs that appeals to me, not to mention that he has a lair filled with glow in the dark knickknacks and a giant roulette. 

Another enjoyable factor about the movie is that it has a lot of glorious and exotic worlds to gaze at. You have Halloweentown, which harkens back to the old German expressionist films of yesteryear. It's dark, distorted and many of the scenes shot in Halloweentown are seen in shadow. Perhaps the most iconic image of the film is Jack Skellington silhouetted against the giant yellow moon as he sings his song of lament. Christmastown is pure Dr. Seuss and also borrows elements from the winter wonderland seen in many of the Rankin Bass Christmas specials. We see bright, colorful lights, snowmen, elves and old Saint Nick himself, equipped with a candy walking cane. Then, you have the real world, which is perfectly aligned, yet still has an abstract style to it. The houses look like actual houses and it's always a treat to see the terrifying Christmas gifts strike panic and fear in the hearts of all the world's children. The children's reactions to the Christmas gifts are priceless and the Christmas gifts themselves are pretty ingenious. There's a demonic Christmas wreath with long tentacles, a giant snake that has an appetite for silver Christmas trees, a teddy bear with sharp teeth, a Christmas tree filled with bats, a killer jack in the box and even a shrunken head. You can tell why the humans would want to hunt Jack down and as he lies there in that graveyard after being shot down, he comes to realizes that the whole Christmas thing was fun, but Halloween is where he really belongs and he sets out to put things right. He rescues Santa and Sally from Oogie Boogie and in a brilliant homage to The Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus puts his finger under his nose and flies through the pipe from which he came. There are a lot of homages to tales of the past, everything from Frankenstein, to Hamlet to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There are also a ton of references to classic Christmas tales of the past. For example, Jack's dog Zero is like a ghost version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and he even leads Jack's sleigh of skeleton reindeer through the fog filled skies. Jack himself is like a reverse Grinch, only instead of trying to steal Christmas from everybody else, he's trying to make it so everybody, including the demented creatures of Halloweentown can enjoy it. The way the main character comes to realize that what he has down is wrong is also reminiscent of the Grinch and in the end, he sets things right and comes to his senses. Also, is it just me, or are all the residents of Halloweentown like rejected Dr. Seuss characters? I think it's just me. 

In the end, it's quite obvious why this film is considered a classic. It took a great spin on our favorite holidays and helped us to realize why we like celebrating them in the first place. It was one of the first stop motion feature films of it's kind and in many ways, it revolutionized the art and made it what it is today. It solidified Tim Burton as a master of macabre and a storyteller like none other in Hollywood. And most importantly, it made icons out of Jack Skellington, Sally, Zero, Oogie Boogie, Dr. Finklestein, Lock, Shock and Barrel and the rest of their friends and in some ways, made them household names. The Nightmare Before Christmas is an experience like none I've ever embarked on, a film like no film I have ever set eye sockets to. It's a film one can glance at and relish themselves within, on Halloween, Christmas or any time of year. It's a fantasy, a comedy, a horror film and a suspense thriller blended together into one smooth concoction of brilliantness. It's one of my all time favorite movies and I'll probably watch it a thousand times more before this lifetime is out. Kudos to Burton, kudos to Selick and everybody who worked on this movie, for it is surely a masterpiece, a piece of art, a trip through a bizarre art museum full of the unbelievable and the imaginative. Tape yourselves to your chairs while watching this flick, you are in for one whirling, twirling adventure. 

And I just realized, this film turns 20 years old this year. Happy 20th, you NIGHTMARE!

Beetlejuly: Batman Returns

One of the reasons Warner Bros. decided not to distribute Edward Scissorhands was because they wanted Burton to make a sequel to the highly successful Batman. After Burton finished Edward Scissorhands, he then decided to make a sequel to Batman for Warner Bros, only if Warner Bros. granted him entire creative control. The result was the only sequel Burton ever made to any of his movies and in my opinion, it's one of those sequels that is either on par with the first or even better. It's of course 1992's Batman Returns which sees Michael Keaton don the Batsuit once more as he takes on a penguin, a cat and a.....corrupted businessman? It took just about everything that made the first Batman film great and in many areas, it amplified these elements. It also gave us a more superior, more sympathetic villain than Jack Nicholson's Joker. Don't get me wrong, Nicholson was great as the clown prince of crime, but when it comes to the Penguin, perhaps my favorite Bat baddie, Danny Devito hit a home run and gave us an antagonist like none we had ever seen on screen before. Batman Returns was the first Batman film I saw all the way through and every time I watch it, I like it more and more. Some say it doesn't hold up as well today, especially since Nolan's trilogy is set in the concrete, but I think it's up there with the original Batman as well as The Dark Knight and surely beats out Batman Forever and the dreadful Batman and Robin (I'm just kidding, it's admittedly a guilty pleasure for me). It's style, it's camera angles, it's all around Tim Burtoness (is that even a word?), it really hits the spot for me and gives me that dark, twisted Batman fix whenever I need it.

This is Burton's second film to have a Christmas themed setting, but like Edward Scissorhands and even this summer's Iron Man 3, you obviously don't need to watch this film around the holiday season to enjoy it. Heck, it wasn't even released during the holiday season, it was released in June 1992. The holiday atmosphere just gives the film a signature style and glimmer and Gotham City and snow are like a match made in heaven. The already dark Gotham City looks fantastic with a coat of snow over it and this time around, we see a lot more buildings, lit up signs and giant sculptures that make Gotham the abstract place that it is. We also see the more corporate side of Gotham and the monsters that will do anything for big green benjamins. One of the film's antagonists is Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken. He's a Batman character exclusive to this movie and he was named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlok in the 1922 silent horror film, Nosferatu. Walken portrays Shreck as a lean, calm and collective businessman, but deep down, he's a selfish, malicious, cold hearted person who does anything to glorify his image. He even killed his own business partner in secret and filled Gotham's sewers with toxic sludge, something the Penguin brings up when he meets Shreck for the first time. Walken is by far the film's most unlikeable character and every time I see him on screen, I just want to give him a knuckle sandwich. Out of all the villains Walken has played throughout his career, this is one of his best. He comes off as a dirtbag who manipulates, tricks and even kills to get his way, to get his precious money. One of his victims is his assistant, Selina Kyle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. She is driven so insane by Max's betrayal that she goes on a rampage throughout her own apartment and becomes the sinister Catwoman. Pfeiffer portrays Catwoman in an over the top fashion, but she's still a likable and relatable anti-hero. I love the relationship she has with Batman and that the two are fighting one minute and trying to smooch with one another the next. Catwoman seduces Batman many times throughout the film and at the end of the day, she just wants to tickle his bat ears and get on his bad side, all in one evening.

Michael Keaton returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and although nothing has really changed with his performance, he does try to reason with the villains and try to make them see what is right in life. The way he talks to Selina and tells her that she and him are the same, split right down the centre is a scene that tugs at your heartstrings. Batman even takes off his mask and reveals himself to Selina. How he can tear that thick rubber mask off so frivolously is still unknown, but it's still awesome and for a brief couple of seconds, we can see Batman without the black eye makeup. I also like how calm and relaxed Batman is, even when he's in great danger. A scene in the film depicts Penguin taking control of the Batmobile and Batman realizes that he's in trouble, but instead of having an anxiety attack or breaking out in a fit of rage, he keeps his cool, uses his noggin and eventually overpowers the Penguin's control. It just goes to show that you can be a kick ass Batman without having a dark raspy voice or need to beat the crap out of your enemies every chance you get. Keaton still portrays Batman in that mysterious, laid back, yet intimidating style and that's the reason why I like him so much. Every time I see that image of him looming in the shadows, I get scared and thrilled at the same time. He was just born to play Batman and bring something new to the role. Keaton's Batman will always been known for his stillness, his passiveness, his sarcasm, his quick thinking and his hypnotic stare. I think he and Bela Lugosi' Dracula should get together and have a staring contest!

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Danny Devito as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. He did to the Penguin what Heath Ledger did to the Joker 16 years later. Devito's Penguin is a villainous, resourceful, and calculating mastermind but he's also a sympathetic, confused and misunderstood misfit that we can't help but feel sorry for. He was abandoned by his parents when he was just a baby and was raised in the slimy Gotham sewers by a bunch of freakshow performers and penguins. He has a heated grudge for the aristocrats and rich citizens of Gotham and desires to become the city's mayor, bringing a new reign of order the city had never seen before. He also desires to be excepted and admired, even if he was born with flipper like hands and a oval shaped body. It's a very different take on the character, straying far from the comic book version as well as the version Burgess Meredith brought to life in the 60s television series. Burton drew inspiration from the mad scientist in the 1920 German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and reimagined the Penguin as not only a dignified, ruthless gentleman of crime, but a deranged, tortured soul, constantly haunted by his past. It's a shame to see him emerge from the sewers and try to adjust to the public life, cameras and paparazzi flashing all around him. He then vows to find his parents and after an endless, sleepless night of searching, he comes to realize that they are dead. He then tells the citizens that he is not an animal, he is a human being and that he should be treated as such, despite the fact that he has obvious abnormalities. It is then that the Penguin gets a lot of the recognition and admiration he longed for as Shreck helps him run for city mayor. During these scenes, you can really feel his determination, his perseverance and his motivation to get to the finish line. At times, I kind of wanted to see him win the election and become mayor, but we all know he was running for mayor with the promise that he would help Shreck complete his power plant project. Oswald gives eloquent speeches, hits on the ladies, comes up with ideas off the top of his head and at times, gives into his animal like impulses. In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, he randomly bites a guy's nose after the guy makes a slight joke. It goes to show that no matter how respected Oswald is and how much he is excepted in society, he will always have the inner demon that causes him to do animalistic things.

Then, as Bruce Wayne ruins a campaign speech, dubbing over his speech with harsh comments he made earlier, the citizens of Gotham turn on the Penguin and it's then that he ultimately turns against them, vowing to get back at the "retched pinhead puppets". He then returns to the sewers and comes up with the plan to abduct all the firstborn sons of Gotham and drown them in the polluted sewer water. He also says the complete opposite of what he said earlier. He is not Oswald Cobblepot, he's the Penguin. He is not a human, he's a cold blooded animal and once again, he gives into his animalistic impulses. As one of his clown henchmen protests his idea of killing all of Gotham's firstborns, the Penguin mercilessly shoots him with one of his umbrella guns and kicks him into the green water. You can really tell at this moment that he's going to do some major crap. He's through with Gotham City and is ready to make them pay. But as all heroes do, Batman foils his plans and rescues the children, much to the Penguin's disgust and fury. He then decides to dispose of Gotham all together and destroy it by putting missiles on the back of his penguins, sending them above to launch the missiles and spread chaos. Of course, Batman foils that scheme as well and he and the Penguin have an impressive one on one in which the Penguin uses his umbrella like a sword and uses it to choke Batman. Eventually, Batman unleashes a swarm of bats on the deformed fellow and sends him falling into the green Kool Aid water below.

After a scene in which Catwoman electrocutes Shreck (leaving her fate unknown), the Penguin emerges from the water, black ink like liquid spewing from his nose and mouth. As he goes to retrieve an umbrella, he grabs the wrong one, but he is still determined to "murder" Batman despite his declining health. He squawks one more time and then slums to the floor, dead as a doorknob. He is then giving a burial by the only friends he ever had, the penguins, who drag his body and place it into the depths of Gotham's sewer. It's surely a tragic end to a tragic villain, one of the most tragic superhero movie villains ever. All the Penguin wanted was acceptance and throughout the movie, we saw what lengths he was willing to go to to get that acceptance. We can also feel the pain he feels and the anger he feels for being abandoned and left to suffer in a contaminated sewer when he was very young. Although his parents did such a nasty thing to him and it caused him great agony, the Penguin eventually came to accept it and even forgive his parents. That makes him a very human character and not so much a villain after all. He may have been driven to do bad things, but he had a precise reason for doing these things and wanted to show the world just how brilliant minded and intelligent he was.  As I said before, the Penguin was misunderstood and longed to be just like everybody else. He also longed for love, something people very seldom gave him. Danny Devito portrayed the Penguin powerfully and still to this day, it's my favorite interpretation of the character.

He also drives a duck mobile. What more can be said. Duck mobiles are awesome!

Yeh, I know, most of this Batman Returns review has been devoted to the Penguin, but I do think he is the star of the show and Batman is just there to do what good guys always do. Think of it as Wreck It Ralph with Fix-It Felix Jr. as Batman and Wreck-It Ralph as the Penguin. But what other greatness does this film have in it's possession. Well, once more, the score by Danny Elfman is defiant and grandiose. The score that plays during the Penguin's death is one of the most emotional tunes I have ever heard and every time I hear it, I get a feeling of deep sorrow. The music that plays during the fight scenes also gets the adrenaline flowing and as always, Elfman's Batman theme fits with the character and makes the film feel epic and exhilarating. The ending scene of the film gives us a bittersweet feeling, but I think it's a perfect ending to Burton's duology and lets your imagination fill in the voids. As Bruce Wayne and Alfred drive off into the snow filled night, we get one more look at the deranged Gotham City and out of the misty skies comes the Batsignal. Before you can blink, Catwoman, who was thought to be dead from an earlier scene emerges and the end credits roll. That....this just spectacular. Although it set up a sequel brilliantly, it also tied the knot and forever sealed Burton's Batman universe shut with nails and hammers. In many ways, we don't need to know what Keaton's Batman embarks on next. We don't need to see what malevolence Catwoman causes after the events of Returns (although a Catwoman spinoff was in the works for some time). We don't need to see Billy Dee William's Harvey Dent return and become Two- Face or Robin finally join Batman's side. The ending to Batman Returns lets us fill in the empty space ourselves and make our own assumptions. Maybe it was after Batman Returns that Bruce decided to give up Batman, at least for a while. Perhaps Gotham finally stopped being the crime filled "hell" it was notoriously known as. The ending makes us ask questions, but it also sums up things on a high note.

We all know there wasn't a sequel, at least a sequel directed by Tim Burton. As Batman Returns didn't earn the amount of money Warner Bros. was expecting, they made the series more mainstream and more family oriented with 1995's Batman Forever. Although Burton was producer of that film, it didn't seem to capture the same kind of magic and essence Batman and Batman Returns delivered, not to mention that Joel Schumacher's direction just wasn't of the same caliber as Burton's. But Batman Forever, as well as Batman and Robin do have their following and although they were met with negative reception upon their release, they have built quite a substantial audience as the years progressed and some people even consider them superior to Burton's two films. And even if Christopher Nolan's trilogy has come along to forever mold the shape of Batman films and what they stand for, Tim Burton's films will always have that style that grows on me every time I watch them. They have their cheesy moments, but what movies don't have cheesy moments? They have flaws, but what movies don't have flaws? They are dark and gritty and full of ghastly, grotesque imagery, but what Tim Burton film isn't equipped with that? Burton did a great job interpreting the Batman lore and understanding what makes it so great, giving it his own touch and wizardry in the process. When asked what film I like better (Batman or Batman Returns), I tend to place them both on the exact same level, both in quality and all around entertainment. These films might be over the top and outdated in some people's books, but in my book, they will always be my favorite Batman movies.

The only major flaw Batman Returns has to offer is that since Burton was directing it in the 91-92 timeframe, he wasn't able to direct the film based on a poem he wrote during his Disney days. Tune in next time and we'll talk all about a certain....Nightmare.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Beetlejuly: Edward Scissorhands

Whenever asked what my favorite Tim Burton film is, Edward Scissorhands is the first thing to come to mind. In fact, Burton and Danny Elfman have gone on record saying that this is their most cherished work and after watching this film dozens of times throughout the years, I'm quite certain it's my personal favorite Burton film as well. In my mind, no Burton film captures the very essence and nature of his macabre and quirky imagination better than Edward Scissorhands and out of all his movies, Edward Scissorhands is the most humorous, the most tearjerking, the most jarring and the most climatic  Burton experience for one to embark on. It was based upon a drawing Burton did in his youth while living in Burbank and as the years went by, Burton debated whether or not to bring this whimsical, outlandish creation to the big screen. During the production of Beetlejuice, Burton hired Caroline Thompson to adapt his brainchild into a screenplay and since Warner Bros. decided not to distribute the film, Burton and company packed their things and took the motion picture to Twentieth Century Fox. The role of Edward was considered for many top stars of the time, everyone from Tom Cruise to Robert Downey Jr. to William Hurt. Finally, the role went to a not so well known television actor by the name of Johnny Depp and a grand friendship between Depp and Burton was born that lasts to this very day. Edward Scissorhands was also the swan song for one of the greatest American actors to ever grace the cinema, the great Vincent Leonard Price, who had previously worked with Burton on his short film Vincent. The role of the inventor was written specifically for Price and even if he has a few brief scenes in the film, he plays them out beautifully, like a child in Candyland, like a good hearted scientist who not only loves to build things, but marvel and indulge himself in the things he builds. Edward Scissorhands didn't have any scenes that would have scared the skins off me as a child nor did it have any scenes I was completely bored over. It had that perfect balance of creative atmospheres, character tension, sweet romance and above all, imagination at the heart. That's what makes a good movie for me, the marriage of all these exotic, yet interesting elements.

I love the way Johnny Depp portrays Edward, as a kind, yet oblivious and curious fellow who has a hard time fitting into the real world and the flesh and blood humans that inhabit it. I mean, come on, if you were a guy with scissors for hands, you would have a hard time fitting in as well. What's interesting to note about Depp's performance is that he based Edward's movements and mannerisms off of that of the great silent film star, Charlie Chaplin. When watching the film, I couldn't help but see a lot of the Tramp in good old Edward, for he waddles and roams about just like Chaplin did in a lot of his films. Not to mention that Robert Downey Jr., who was originally considered for the role of Edward, went onto play Charlie Chaplin in the 1992 biopic Chaplin and get nominated for an Academy Award.  I think what I like most about Edward is what he stands for. I think his character shows that entities of all sorts can be frightening and demonic on the outside, yet be good hearted, gentle souls on the inside. Even if Edward was considered a menace at times and made to look like so, he still retained a kindness and gentle spirit which at times was very heartwarming. Heck, one of the film's covers shows Edward reaching out for a butterfly. You can just tell that he wants to explore the world around him, yet be careful and thoughtful as he does it. He's not a artificial man that likes to rush into things and purposely cause panic, he likes to observe things first and then, when it is needed he helps out and even saves lives, even if he injures or maims in the process. He's got a mechanical heart of love and I think it's quite touching that the first emotion he shows is love, when he sees the picture of Winona Ryder's character, Kim. Edward's face and Elfman's score really make the scene as exemplary as it is and we can just feel the butterflies flapping their wings inside Edward. It's that emotional. And even if he was an outcast and weirdo to her at first, Kim comes to love and appreciate Edward for who he is by the film's conclusion. Many people like to compare this film to Beauty and the Beast and this is one of the reasons why.

Another story the film brings to mind is Frankenstein. Of course Burton made his own version of Frankenstein with Frankenweenie, but with this film, he really nails it and helps us better understand the hard life of an artificially built man. We see that Edward struggles to understand the human ways, much like the Frankenstein monster. We see that he longs to understand why he was made, what he was meant to do and what destiny has in store for him, things that the Frankenstein monster no doubt dealt with and even questioned his creator of in different adaptations. We also see how the townspeople act around Edward, just like the townspeople acted around the Frankenstein monster in the many variations of Shelley's classic tale and most importantly, the 1931 film. One of the neighbors of the Boggs' family even calls Edward a product of the devil. Intense stuff, yes, but the reason the scene is so saddening is because Edward can't understand what the nasty neighbor is accusing him of.

Esmeralda: It's not heaven he's from! It's straight from the stinking flames of hell! The power of Satan is in him; I can feel it. Can't you? Have you poor sheep strayed so far from the path?
Edward: We're not sheep.
Esmeralda: Don't come near me!

That's another reason why I like Edward so much. In some instances and situations, he doesn't know how to act and what to do. In one scene of the film, he is forced to rob a house and as the cops come to arrest him, they tell him to put his hands in the air. As the frail and nervous Edward comes out with his hands up, the police think he has knives in his hands and they tell him to put them down or they will open fire. Since the scissors are obviously his hands, he obviously can put them down, so the police prepare to shoot, that is until the neighbors rush to the scene and tell the police what he is and who he is. Another scene that shows how Edward's mind works is when Mr. Boggs, played by Alan Arkin asks Edward what he would do if he found a suitcase full of money. Do you A. Keep the money B. Use it to buy gifts for your friends and your loved ones C. You give it to the poor or D. You turn it into the police. Edward, having the love filled heart that he has says that he would give it to his loved ones, only to be ridiculed by Mr. Boggs and his son. It's not that he doesn't think, it's just that he has an entirely different way of thinking and hasn't really been taught anything essential except for the inventor's teachings.

In fact, it's almost like Edward's entire purpose of being built in the first place was to love and ONLY love. Think about it. A scene in the movie shows the inventor (played by Vincent Price), watching his cooking making machine make dozens of multi shaped cookies. He then takes one of the cookies, which is shaped like a heart and holds it up to the chest of one of his lettuce slicing robots, intending to make a man out of the automaton. It's the film's most touching sequence in my opinion. Another scene shows the pages of a book depicting Edward's building process and one of the pages shows a completed Edward without the scissorhands, with shorter hair and a suit that looks like something a teenager would wear to prom. He looks like an ideal "prince" or man women would drool over. Perhaps Edward was made to charm a young woman in the inventor's life or charm any woman in general. Perhaps he was built to be the son the inventor never had and he would meet a woman, marry her and keep the inventor's family going. Many questions are raised when you REALLY watch the movie and ponder on what it has to offer, but I think in times like this, we can let our imaginations fill in the empty spaces.

But my favorite scene out of the entire movie is when the neighbor, Joyce opens a beauty salon in which Edward will work at and cut hair. She leads Edward into the back room and tries to sexually seduce him, that is until the chair Edward is sitting in falls over, prompting Edward to get up and leave the salon. Later on, Edward meets up with the Boggs family at a diner and as Mr. Boggs asks Edward how his day went, Edward tells him of the marvels in the beauty salon, just before saying this....

And then she showed the back room where she took all of her clothes off. 

The first time I saw this scene, I thought it was (Literally) the funniest thing I had ever seen. Just the fact that Edward just comes out and says it, the way he says, the way the family reacts and the unexpectedness really adds to the scene's overall charm and hilarity. I still wet my pants every time I see it and it's undeniably the film's funniest scene, along with the scene where Edward gets drunk off of "lemonade" and falls to the floor. Peg Boggs, played by Dianne Wiest comes off as a sweet motherly figure to Edward and even when things get rough and rocky, she still tries to look on the bright side of things and see the goodness that lies within Edward. She knows and understands why Edward is the way he is and tries to help him understand right from wrong. She's the true person Edward needed in his life and the relationship between the two is probably the film's most touching relationship. The relationship between Edward and Kim's boyfriend (played by Anthony Michael Hall) is also fun to watch. Right from the beginning, the guy has an immediate dislike for Edward and tries to humiliate him and force him into trouble every chance he gets. He is also disgusted at Edward for liking Kim and when Edward accidentally cuts Kim's hand, Hall's character believes him to have done it on purpose and tells him to go away and never return. Hall's character is that guy we love to hate and in the end, he gets what all the baddies get, an over the top demise. In a moment that will leave you gasping, Edward impales Hall and sends him flying out the window of the abandoned castle. It's another one of those jarring moments in the film, but since Hall was such an unlikeable character, many were probably glad to see him go. Go back to the Breakfast Club, you dirtbag! 

Then there's Vincent Price, who gives a heartwarming performance as the old inventor who dies before he gets to finish Edward, living him with the scissorhands for the rest of time. I just love how he observes the contraptions he builds, he's like a kid in a Toys R Us. I wonder if he's the one that taught Pee Wee Herman how to build his breakfast machine. The scene in which he teaches etiquette to an unfinished Edward will have you chuckling and tearing up, all at the same time! Seeing Edward try to smile for the first time, it kind of reminds me of when the Terminator tried to smile in a deleted scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The scene where the old inventor dies is one of the most heartwrenching scenes in a movie, and what makes it so sad is that this really was Vincent Price's last major performance in a motion picture. He gives it all he's got and for his last performance, he goes out with a powerful, yet sorrowful bang. What makes my heart break is that he died right when he was going to give real hands to Edward and as he falls to the floor, Edward's scissorhands go right through the hands, breaking them to bits. Then Edward looks down at the dead body of his mentor and because he doesn't fully understand death, he cuts the inventor's cheek, observing his blood and realizing that he will be stuck with the scissorhands for all eternity. That's a powerful moment and gets me choked up each time. I think a lot of us feel the same way, for Vincent Price was truly a remarkable man and a true inspiration, not only to Tim Burton, but to countless others as well. He is certainly an inspiration for me. His voice, his charm, his sense of humor and his love for the arts are certainly the things that made him special. He was one of the world's greatest actors and this film was a great swan song for his entire career.

If there are two other aspects that must be praised, it's the design and the film's soundtrack. The way the inventor's castle looks is very reminiscent of the castles from Roger Corman's Poe films which Vincent Price starred in in the 60s. I also like the look of suburbia and the hedge trimming Edward does to the neighborhood's plants. He makes people, dinosaurs, and even demons! The exotic haircuts Edward gives the ladies of the neighborhood are also interesting to look at and look like something the Whos would don in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The way Edward looks is very iconic and nice to look at as well and looks like a mashup between Marilyn Manson and Freddy Krueger. The man who designed Edward and his scissorhands was Stan Winston, the special effects and makeup artist whose work includes the Terminator series, the Jurassic Park series, Aliens, Avatar and Iron Man. You could just tell that Winston had a passion and heart for his work and he did a fantastic job making Edward actually look like an artificial gentle man. The score by Danny Elfman is simply his best work, at least in my opinion. His score for Edward Scissorhands is melancholy and sweet when it needs to be and it's dark and menacing when it needs to be and I have never heard a score as beautiful as the Ice Dance score. One time, when I was younger, I saw snow falling outside on a cold winter's night. It was dark, but not to the point that stopped me from seeing each individual snowflake fall to the white ground. I immediately thought of the Ice Dance theme. It's the very epitome of a beautiful tune. The theme that plays during the opening montage of the inventor's exotic lab equipment is also delightful to the ears and sets the mood for an odd, yet incredible flick.

I could sit and talk and talk and talk about every single aspect of this movie, but I won't. I'll let you see this one for yourself if you haven't already and perhaps you will be blown away just as I was when I first saw it. If you have seen it already, then why not give it another watch. It may be depressing and dramatic at times, but I doubt you will walk away feeling that you wasted two hours of your time. It's got the perfect mix of what makes Tim Burton's films so great and the ending to the movie sums up the entire picture perfectly, giving us one more heartwarming scene before the screen turns black. Edward Scissorhands makes us think about a lot of things. What makes a man? What can one do to impact the lives of others? What does one do when he's got obvious deformities? What does it take to be loved? Only you can interpret these things for yourself and make them last a lifetime. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Beetlejuly: Batman

Tim Burton was immediately hired to direct Batman after the success of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and although the project wasn't greenlit until after Beetlejuice hit theaters, the juices were cooking for the first live action Batman film in several years. When the 1980s rolled in, gone were the days of Batman being a campy, POW punching chum with a sidekick that said HOLY something every time they were in peril. Batman was becoming a much more serious, more adult character and this couldn't be more evident than in Frank Miller's groundbreaking comic series The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's graphic novel The Killing Joke. When the time came for Batman to be adapted into a motion picture, Burton and his crew would no doubt follow in the same dark footsteps and make Batman as dark and contemporary as possibly, the way Bob Kane originally wanted the character to be. Admittedly though, Burton was not much of a comic book reader, but he liked the image of Batman and the Joker and was ready to mold them in his own unique fashion. The result was one of the greatest hero and villain relationships ever put to film in one of the greatest superhero films ever constructed. Batman was not only one of the greatest hits of all time, it was the very film that sparked a resurgence in superhero related films and one of the very reasons why the genre is still up and running today with Christopher Nolan's most recent Batman trilogy as well as this summer's smash hit, Man of Steel. Batman was Burton's biggest success and launched him as a highly profitable director. So, it could very well be that without Batman, there wouldn't have been Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or even The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

And I'm just going to come out and say it, I like it better than Christopher Nolan's trilogy. Don't get me wrong, I still love those films to death and Heath Ledger's Joker is one of the greatest movie villains in history, but one thing I never really liked about them is that they were too grounded in reality. Nolan aimed for a more realistic fashion with his trilogy and made Batman and his foes as if they could exist in the real world. Not that there is anything wrong with that, being grounded in realism can be interesting and at times very cinematic, but the Nolanverse doesn't really look like a place you can really escape to when you wish to leave the real world and enter a world of make believe. It looks too much like the world we live in at this very moment. The world of Tim Burton's Batman REALLY looks like a place you could retreat to and indulge yourself in when the going gets tough. It's a fantasy world at it's finest. Just look at Gotham City. To quote Anton Furst, We imagined what New York City might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay of ugliness. As if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going. 

Michael Keaton is probably my favorite Batman, along with Kevin Conroy of course. In fact, Batman: The Animated Series was heavily inspired by this film as well as the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. When people heard he would be playing Bruce Wayne/Batman, they protested and couldn't see him in the Caped Crusader's boots. That's exactly the reason why I like him so much, it's because you just can't see him in the role. That's what makes Bruce Wayne/Batman so mysterious, that this guy in a rubber bat suit could be anybody, even a shy, humble, down to Earth billionaire. When Vicki Vale finds out that Bruce is Batman, she questions him and when she asks him to explain the whole Batman ordeal, he says that he can't and that he has to be Batman because nobody else will. That is brilliant layering to Bruce's character and makes him all the more interesting to watch. Not that Christian Bale's Batman wasn't like that at times, but you could really tell that deep down, he had some problems he couldn't sort out. With Keaton, you couldn't see a single trace that he was dealing with something much bigger than himself. He was casual, polite, well mannered and an all out gentleman. He also didn't have that ridiculous raspy voice Bale's Batman had, instead having a more casual, yet still very intimidating voice that scared the bejesus out of all of Gotham's criminal thugs.

Batman: I want you to tell all of your friends about me. 

Thug (terrified): WHAT ARE YOU?! 

Batman: I'M BATMAN!

Now let's talk about the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson. Many have said in the past that Nicholson easily steals the show and that the movie focuses more on him than it does Batman. And the more I think about that, the more I realize that it is somewhat true. The Joker is actually more out in the public than Batman is, but here is the way I see it. The whole point of Batman is to be this mysterious, shadowy entity that comes out at night to put a stop to crime. The whole point of the Joker is to make himself known throughout all Gotham City, gaining the people's trust and manipulating them before he eventually tricks them. The Joker, in his own strange way, has to take center stage for it makes you feel just how big an impact his character has on the story. He's supposed to be the big guy, the dark twisted menace with a grand plan, unlike Ledger's Joker that just wanted to watch the world burn. Jack Nicholson is spot on as Jack Napier/Joker and even though he is the antagonist, he is still likable and funny as heck. He's like Beetlejuice, just an out of control goofball with tricks and treats at every head turn. He makes the movie fun to watch and his methods of taking lives are really ingenious. Sometimes, he electrocutes people with a hand zapper, other times, he makes them laugh themselves to death with laughing gas. In one scene, he kills a crime lord by stabbing him with a feather quill.

The pen is truly mightier than the sword!

Nicholson is truly a marvel as the Joker and proves that the villain can not only be menacing, but also a likable schmuck who just wants to have fun.

The overall look, feel and design of the movie comes next. As I said before, the universe of Burton's Batman really looks like a place of pure fantasy and if you would take one look at Gotham City, you would immediately be sucked into it. Inspired by silent films like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Burton and company really made Gotham look like a place you wouldn't want to be around at nightfall. It's dark, prudent and powerful with it's blazing skyscrapers and buildings and with the night sky looming in the background, it makes for an atmosphere straight out of a dark fantasy. The look of the Batsuit, the Batcave and the Batmobile are also nice to gaze at with their sleek, stylized patterns and smooth surfaces. The scene where the Batwing is silhouetted against the moon sticks out in my memory as the film's most iconic moment. And who could forget the look of the Joker's parade balloons. Believe it or not, Tim Burton actually designed a balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It's only fitting that he would have some neat looking balloons in this movie! Danny Elfman once again scores a Burton film and his theme for Batman fits with the character beautifully. It's an overpowering composition and it gives me gas in the stomach every time I listen to it. It's just as legendary as John Williams' Superman theme and sets the tone for a dark, brooding, more compelling superhero ready to get down to business. Every time I watch this movie, I get Elfman's score caught in my head for hours on end. It surely is a riveting, arresting composition that makes Batman feel epic.

A lot of people don't like that Jack Napier/Joker killed Bruce Wayne/Batman's parents. I think it's brilliant. Because of this plot point, we are able to feel the tension between the protagonist and antagonist and understand their motivations a whole lot better. It's also brilliant that the Joker created Batman and Batman created the Joker and that they are trying to get back at one another for making each other what they are. As Burton put it, it's a duel of the freaks and in the end, only one will come out on top. It's been argued on countless occasions that Batman doesn't kill. I think that Batman goes out realizing that just killing someone right away won't really solve anything and that killing should come as a last resort when the battle gets too intense, either as a means to save himself or save someone he cares about. And in the earlier comics, Batman killed criminals all the time, so this part of his character harkens back to the days when the character was just getting introduced to the world. In the end, it really doesn't trouble me. I like to think of this movie as the ultimate superhero flick, a flick that shows that heroes can not only be handled on the big screen, but handled well and the audience can relate to them and compare them to themselves. And Burton and his party have handled Batman and everything associated with him quite well, giving us what is often argued as the best Batman movie. It deals with personal struggles, spiritual struggles and struggles at the heart. It also shows how a hero can fall in mud, get back out, clean himself up and eventually overpower the enemies that try to push him back into the mud, avoiding the deep dark thoughts that dwell in his brain, the thoughts that taunt him. Bruce Wayne/Batman finds it in himself to end the wrath of the Joker and save Gotham City from a ghastly fate of laughing gas and fake money. But his duties as Batman are far from over. He would return to fight a cat and a penguin in the only sequel Burton ever made.

But that's an article for another time. Tune in next time and we'll talk about my favorite Tim Burton film, the first Burton film to star the Depp man.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Beetlejuly: Beetlejuice

The time has come to review the namesake of this entire month, Beetlejuice. 1985's Pee Wee's Big Adventure put Tim Burton on the map, and although he was on the verge of bringing the brainchild of Bob Kane to the big screen, he still had some time to whip up a twisted, dark and humorous film of his own. He had been sent several scripts for several films and was disenchanted by most of them, until he received the script for Beetlejuice, written by Michael McDowell. McDowell had worked with Tim Burton on The Jar, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents which Burton directed and when the two suffered creative differences, McDowell ultimately left the project and was replaced by Warren Skaaren. The water was boiling for what is often considered to be one of the funniest films ever put to celluloid, but when I first saw the film in my young years, it became a thorn in my flower bush. Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice character was a demonic, terrifying entity and the sand worms outside the Maitlands' house put chocolate in my pants! I also never liked the scene where Adam and Barbara look into the Room of Lost Souls (Death for the dead), a creepy place filled with exorcised souls with zombified faces and mouths of moaning. At about 5 or 6 years of age, you could see why I shivered at the very sight of this flick, but time would have me love this film the more and more I watched it. Today, Beetlejuice, like Pee Wee's Big Adventure is one of my all time favorite comedies and among my Top 30 Favorite Films of All Time. It's dark and demented (what Tim Burton film isn't), but when you get to the nitty gritty, it's just a highflying episode of fun and quirkiness that is highly enhanced at every viewing.

I like to think of this film as a version of Aladdin, only with zombies, gigantic multicolored sand worms, hunters with shrunken heads and people who dance to Harry Belafonte. Instead of a genie, we get the "Ghost with the Most' who loves to eat flies and hang out at zombie strip clubs. Michael Keaton is at his finest as Beetlejuice in this film and like Pee Wee before him, he's full of energy and comes off as a exotic, but likable chap with frizzy green hair and teeth as rotten as a decaying corpse. Originally, Tim Burton wanted Sammy Davis Jr. to portray Beetlejuice, but David Geffen, who gave Burton McDowell's original script suggested Michael Keaton. Like the role he would play in Burton's next film, this is by far one of Keaton's best and furthered cemented Keaton as a actor who could not only play calm and collective guys, but off the wall and exuberant fellows as well. Beetlejuice is a nut cluster who likes to cause as much trouble as possible, but we also sympathize with him and come to realize why he does the things he does. He's clunky and funny, but at the same time, he's determined and headstrong and he even swears a few times which are often censored when the film airs on television. I like him because he's just a funny and lovable character and the goof we'd like to learn a lot more about. He may not be no Charles Foster Kane, but he is a dignified man with a plan and for that, he's one of my all time favorite movie characters.

The other characters in the film are also superb. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are witty, clueless and at times DISGUSTING as Barbara and Adam Maitland and like Beetlejuice, we sympathize with them because they are just average, ordinary people who were unexpectedly killed and are trying to find their place in the afterlife. The Deetz family comes off as a bunch of pompous snobs at first, but we come to respect and admire them towards the end of the film and like the Maitlands and Beetlejuice, we can't help but sympathize with them as they are put through Beetlejuice's acts of torment. The ways the Maitlands try to scare the Deetz out of their home are very clever and once again DISGUSTING, falling into the category of dark humor. Charles and Delia Deetz are portrayed by Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara, two actors who would work with Burton many times in the near future and star in some of his later films. The Deetz' daughter, Lydia is portrayed by a young Winona Ryder, who plays a gothic, depressed, yet still curious and likable teenager who comes to discover the Maitlands, Beetlejuice and their true intentions as the film progresses. My favorite line of hers from the film is when she quotes the Handbook for the Recently Deceased.

Live people ignore the strange and unusual. I, myself, am, strange and unusual. 

That is brilliant scriptwriting.

Veteran actress Sylvia Sidney portrays Juno, the Maitlands' case worker who constantly scolds Barbara and Adam and warns them of the dangers of Beetlejuice. She is also associated with a group of football players who don't realize they are dead at first.

Football player: Couch, I don't think we survived that crash! 

Juno (sarcastically): How did you guess? 

It's funny quirks like that that really make the movie and there are enough to last a lifetime or two. Like I mentioned before, it's mostly dark humor but for a film involving a bunch of dead guys, it really hits home. Tim Burton has a gift for this kind of stuff and this is the prime example of how he can bring "laughability"  to the most dark and demented of things. My favorite scene out of the entire movie is when the Maitlands are sitting in a waiting room filled with wickedly grotesque abominations and creatures from the crypt. There's a charred dude as skinny as a toothpick who asks Adam if he wants a cigarette and a red faced guy who met his demise by a seafood allergy. There's also guy as flat as a flapjack and who could forget that hunter with the shrunken head?! Little did we know that Beetlejuice himself would receive a similar shrunken head by the end of the movie, but he comes to admire his instant taboo makeover (This could be a good look for me!). Anyway, the reason I like this scene is not only because of all the exotic beings involved in it, but because of the way the Maitlands act around them and try to blend in. After all, they are just plain old ghosts sitting in a waiting room full of creatures once thought to solely exist in nightmares! I lot of us wouldn't know how to act in a situation like that!

Danny Elfman returns from Pee Wee's Big Adventure and his score for this film raises it's awesomeness to a whole new level. From the opening score to the score that plays when the Maitlands are getting exorcised, you can really tell that Elfman knew how to make his music blend in with each scene of the film and make it match up perfectly. It can be dark, it can be upbeat, it can even be uplifting at times, which leaves you with a funny, yet good feeling in your bones. The stop motion effects Burton pioneered in Vincent and Pee Wee are also present in this film, particularly in the scenes involving the sand worms and the scene where Beetlejuice turns into a snake. I also love the scene where Beetlejuice reigns havoc on the Deetz/Maitland house and tries to get Lydia to marry him. It's one of the craziest, if not the craziest scene I have ever seen in a motion picture and leaves me chuckling at every millisecond. It's a great climax to a great movie that gives you chills, thrills and a few spills, spills that will no doubt leave an impression on you. It's by far one of Burton's finest and funniest works and it even spawned a cartoon series that lasted a few seasons on ABC. I grew up watching the series and if you want to see a highly exotic animated series from the early 90s, this might be your pot of gold.

From what I've heard, a second installment is in the works, which makes me wonder quite a bit. Beetlejuice was left with a shrunken head at the end of the first movie and the Maitlands and the Deetz made peace and lived happily ever after. How in the world are they going to follow up and top that, unless they make an unexpected detour and make a prequel, exploring Beetlejuice's mysterious origins. Either way you put it, the sequel, if it even gets made will have some huge shoes to fill and will be quite an experience, probably an unexpected experience. It might be better than the first or it might fall flat on it's face, but only you can decide if it's good or bad.

Anyway, tune in next time and we'll talk about that guy who dresses up like a bat.