Tag Archives: Tim Burton

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

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Coincidentally, Tim Burton’s grim, macabre musical tragedy ties in with an important moment in my life; “Sweeney Todd” was the first review I ever wrote. I can’t seem to recover this piece of my early teenhood, but I’m happy to say I’ve grown enormously as a critic since my gawky adolescence, and while I have a long way to go, well… who doesn’t? It’s been a rewarding and worthy journey, albeit with many frustrating pitfalls along the way.

Anyway, what can I say? I love “Sweeney.” Always have. I know it isn’t the most popular film with the critics, but I think of it as the last great film Tim Burton has done in recent times. I’ll be perfectly frank… I enjoyed the Burtster’s take on “Alice in Wonderland.” Guilty pleasure, folks, don’t judge me. “Big Eyes” was a mistake one that should not be repeated. Who would have known Tim Burton would be the one to get a terrible performance out of Christoph Waltz? Guys, is that even possible?

While “Alice in Wonderland” was gaudy entertainment, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a dark morality tale, with, in my opinion, a genuine sense of artistry behind it. There was a barber and his wife… and it took only a bit of sleight hand by a corrupt judge (the suitably villainous Alan Rickman) to tear that happy couple apart forever. Now the barber (Johnny Depp,) sent away for a crime he didn’t commit, is a sadistic sociopath bent on revenge.

His wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) is out of the picture, having been driven crazy by the judge’s lascivious appetites, and their once infant daughter Joanna (Jayne Wisener) is Turpin’s young, beautiful prisoner. Lovestruck sailor boy Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) concocts a plan to rescue Joanna, but the barber, Benjamin Barker, or Sweeney Todd as he is now called, seems more concerned with getting gory revenge on the judge that ruined his life than protecting his daughter’s welfare.

Helena Bonham Carter gives the most artful performance as the  equally homicidal Mrs. Lovett, who owns a pie shop known far and wide for it’s disgusting grub (as well as questionable sanitation) and forms a deal with Sweeney converting the men the insane barber kills with his razor into delicious meat pies, satiating his bloodlust while — surprise! business soars.

I’ve heard some people criticize Bonham Carter and Depp’s singing voices — saying they are not up for the job of a musical — but I did not consider their relative inexperience a problem. “Sweeney Todd” is stylized and moody and very, very gory, so expect blood spraying literally all over the set in various scenes. The psychology behind the character’s motivations — and their justifications for the atrocities the choose to commit —is interesting and I love the music. Catchy tunes are a prerequisite in a movie like this, and “Sweeney Todd” has the goods in terms of an addictive score.

Helena Bonham Carter acts with her eyes and the dark makeup shadowing her peepers makes her look perpetually like a work of expressionist art. Depp is slightly less compelling, playing the ultimate emo enraged (however justifiably) with how his life turned out. The only character I truly found myself empathizing with was the little boy (payed by Edward Sanders) who believed with an wide—eyed earnesty and breathtaking innocence that he would look after and protect Mrs. Lovett, and she him.

The rest? Fuck them. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett were morally reprehensible and foul; Joanna and Anthony were a little too much like starcrossed Disney lovers who walked into the wrong movie. Though I had a nagging feeling throughout that Joanna was exploiting the foolishly naive Anthony’s affections in order to get the hell out of dodge. She would be his prize, another kind of slavery, but anything was better than remaining in Judge Turpin’s lecherous possession.

“Sweeney Todd”‘s plot isn’t realistic at all (there’s a kind of unintentional hilarity in the way that, despite endless hint —dropping and an almost identical appearance, Turpin refuses to acknowledge Sweeney’s true identity —who is he, Clark Kent pulling the glasses on his face and the wool over the Judge’s eyes?)

My brother (ever the source of dry wit) quipped that when it came to Judge Turpin, ‘it was hard not to feel sorry for someone who was so like a potato in IQ.’ Not all villains have to be evil geniuses, but damn, that was kind of ridiculous, Turpin had to have gotten into a position of power by some method other than fucking people over. Apparently intelligence wasn’t one of them.

“Sweeney Todd” is a highly enjoyable film even while being morbid and tragic on a grand scale. The stylized storytelling and violence keeps it from being too tough a watch. The acting’s fine, the story’s cool, but the music? That’s really something to stay for. Tim Burton has his moments, and this is one of them. Those with weak stomachs might want to steer clear of this enthusiastically gory flick.

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Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

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Imagine a time way, way back, when Tim Burton wasn’t considered a joke by most film enthusiasts. He had his whole career ahead of him, and he had just been picked by off-the-wall children show host Paul Reubens to make a film adaptation of his show, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” (Reubens, similarly, had his whole career ahead of him, before becoming  the receiving end of a ‘masturbation-in-an-adult-theater’ scandal.) Two off-the-wall artists putting heads together with one another. Why, anything could happen.

“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is a lot like any other comedy, especially of of an absurdist, crazy nature- some jokes work, some don’t. Unhinged man-boy and inventor extraordinaire/ idiot savant (some people might shorten that uncharitably to ‘retard’) Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens) is too obtuse to note his friend Dottie (Elizabeth Daily)’s affection for him. In fact, Pee-Wee can’t see the forest for the trees- the main tree in question being his much adored bicycle.

Naturally, Pee-Wee is distraught when Francis (Mark Holton,) resident spoiled brat and privileged heir, steals the bicycle for himself. The fact that Pee-Wee is almost as much of a self-centered infantile brat as Francis is beside to point as far as the viewer’s loyalties are concerned- the bike is Pee-Wee’s, and no one loves it as much as he does. For Francis it would be just another addition to his massive collection of expensive shit.

Anyway, unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Francis that stole the bike, Pee-Wee heeds the rants of a deceitful fortune teller and goes on a wild goose chase looking for his treasure. Along the way he meets lots of interesting (i.e. bizarre) people and gets himself embroiled in myriad weird encounters, in what seems more like a series of comedic vignettes than an actual movie.

The movie gives Reubens a chance to get in touch with his not-so-deeply inner spastic nut, and for Burton to place him in a world where nobody acts quite like they should. Reubens is unleashed on the set like a kid in a ball pit, and this is not one of those cases where the actor bends to the will of the set- the set bends to the will of Pee-Wee, with lots of destruction and mayhem in the process.

Basically, you’ll either think Pee-Wee’s endearing and funny or you’ll want to cram plastic packing peanuts down his throat until he chokes to death (take that, funny man!) As for me, I wanted to scratch my retinas out for the first two minutes, then I settled down and enjoyed the movie- let me tell you, it was quite a ride! At it’s worst this movie is self-indulgent, with comic sequences that go on for far too long and Reubens ferociously chewing the scenery. At it’s best, it’s quite funny, even cute and charming, like Reubens’ particularly bufoonish brand of physical comedy.

I think it makes people happy to see a trickster character, kind of a developmentally deficient Brier Rabbit, who acts totally out of line to the point of criminal offense and gets away physically and spiritually in one piece, his tomfoolery unfettered by human cynicism and codes of proper social behavior.

In real life, a guy like Pee-Wee would get beat up all the way to the bus stop for special kids, so it’s kind of nice to see a  shameless man-child who makes no effort to conform to others’ expectations for him get ahead for once. It makes the world seem a little less mean, even through the lens of fiction.

“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is definitely an out-there movie, set in a film universe subtly but drastically unlike our own (for one thing, it’s a world where someone like Pee-Wee could receive positive female attention other than abject pity.) There’s a handful of really funny moments, such as Pee-Wee’s act of heroism in the burning pet store (the way he revoltedly rescued the snakes  last cracked me up.)

Basically, you don’t mind the character than Reubens has created, annoying affectations and all, you might like this movie. If you think Pee-Wee Herman is funny, you might love this movie. I didn’t love it, but my appreciation for absurd humor left me enjoying the gags, even when they fell a little… well, flat? All I can say is I’ve warmed up to Pee-Wee, which is more than I can say for many similarly infantile characters. A modest win.

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Big Eyes (2014)

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It seemed like a match made in heaven. Outwardly charming and charismatic realtor Walter (Christoph Waltz) wedded the wide-eyed artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams,) making it possible for her to keep the sexist mid-20th century authorities from deeming her an unfit mother based on her unmarried status and taking her daughter away.

But Walter proved to be an untrustworthy , possessive pig, constantly berating and manipulating the terrified Margaret and taking credit for her work, a series of  slightly unnerving paintings of waifish children with enormous doe eyes. Caught between fear of her husband’s socioeconomic influence and her own happiness, Margaret stayed trapped for years in a loveless  marriage to a egomaniac monster of a husband.

The story of artist Margaret Keane and her fraught relationship with her conniving husband, Walter, seems like it could make a fascinating film, but what can one do with a script as shoddy as this? In “Big Eyes,” Amy Adams is as lovable as ever as the innocent Margaret, initially lulling the viewer into believing that the movie will be much, much better than it actually is.

Christoph Waltz, however, gives an unexpectedly atrocious turn as Walter, rendering all Amy Adams’ efforts to make a good movie out of a mediocre one obsolete. For people such as myself, who adored Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” his performance is a devastating betrayal.

We know he can do better, but with his fiendishly cartoonish portrayal of Adams’ abusive husband, we half expect him to spirit a stack of Acme products out of thin air and futilely attempt to blow Margaret and her frightened daughter to Kingdom come. His performance is what transforms a average movie into something much less.

“Big Eyes” is an improvement over “Alice in Wonderland,” filmmaker Tim Burton’s earlier film of recent years? Ha! “Alice in Wonderland” was solid, gaudy entertainment, harmless to take the kids to and relax your brain with. “Big Eyes” tries to take on serious subject matter, and fails miserably.

I was initially really excited to see it because it sounded a lot different from Burton’s other work, but how disappointed I was when it turned out to be a shallow biopic with one-dimensional characterizations and… yes, a mortifying performance by an actor I used to like and respect.

Meanwhile, a supporting characterization by Danny Huston as an interested reporter seems perfunctory and uninteresting, placed haphazardly in the film simply so he can supply some backstory in the form of a voiceover. As “Big Eyes” veers into shameless, albeit star-studded ridiculousness, all I can think of is what a missed opportunity this was. Hopefully Burton will take his next project more seriously and not deteriorate into kitsch like he did in this sloppy and misfortunate misfire.

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Batman (1989)

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Tim Burton’s “Batman” is often overlooked in favor of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but the 1989 version is in many ways better, not to mention more light-hearted and fun. I think “Batman”‘s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t try to be anything more than a goofy, campy superhero movie. It’s dark, sure, as is Burton’s incarnation of a bleak, crime-ridden Gotham, but it doesn’t try to be as ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘realistic’ as Nolan’s series.

Plus, Jack Nicholson as Joker! Now, I am not going to hate on the late Heath Ledger (it is Chris Nolan who kind of lost me after “Memento,”) but Nicholson is really boss as Batman’s nemesis and owned the role in a way that Ledger couldn’t quite muster (to be fair, picking between the performances is kind of like comparing apples and oranges.)

Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is an eccentric millionaire who uses his massive fortune to fight crime as Batman. Jack Napier (Nicholson) is a thug who is two-timed by his boss (Jack Palance) and left for dead, emerging from a vat of chemicals as the deformed, maniacal joker. Bruce is pursued by newspaper photographer and Batman enthusiast Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger,) who doesn’t know his true identity.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t know the first thing bout relationships- and the Joker is on the prowl,  promising, in the spirit of generosity, to make Gotham’s 200th anniversary an occasion to remember (whether that memory will be regarded fondly is an entirely different matter.)

Michael Keaton is enjoyable as an obtuse vigilante who doesn’t know how to balance his love life and his self-appointed job as a crime-fighting superhero. I wasn’t too impressed with Vicki Vale. Kim Basinger was not too bad, but as with many superhero’s girlfriends, I felt very ‘meh’ about Vicki’s character. Unlike, say, Mary Jane Watson in “Spider-Man”, I never really felt like Vicki cared about either her boyfriend or his heroic alter ego. She seemed to only be after a good story for the newspaper.

She was also constantly doing stupid things like just standing there in the museum Joker besieged when she has an opportunity to get away (why don’t you take the oxygen mask with you) and reaching for the Joker’s hand to pull her up when he and Batman are dangling from a building (because the bad guy’s going to have a road to Damascus right halfway through trying to kill you, mmm-kay.)

Whereas Vicki is typically lifeless, passive female lead who suffers vague but persistent sexual threats from the baddie, Nicholson’s Joker is terrific- a villain worth cheering about (if not for.) His performance is a triumph of black comedy while still being frightening and sinister (I remember being scared by the “Love that Joker’ sequence with the smiling corpses of the models  when I watched this movie as a kid.)

Keaton proves to be a more fun, lighter, and  less self-serious Batman than Christian Bale (another plus the compete lack of Bale’s annoying growly Batman voice.) “Batman” features creative sets, great humor, and an outstanding turn by Jack Nicholson. I remain unsure whether to watch the sequels, as I’ve heard repeatedly that it’s all downhill from here, but the original should go down in history as a effective superhero movie that’s a cut above the rest.

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