Tag Archives: Tim Burton

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

(Netflix Streaming, June 2017) Much as I’d like Tim Burton to develop his own stories than to further contribute to the YA adaptation craze, I’ll have to admit that he’s squarely in his wheelhouse with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: blending Gothic sensibilities with a special-effects-heavy fantasy story, it’s a good excuse for Burton to deploy his visual inventiveness and deliver a story fit for misfit teenagers (and teenagers-at-heart). The grotesque imagery is often successful (although not entirely so, as a disappointing ending shows), and there is real sympathy for the outcast. Considering Eva Green’s screen persona, there is something satisfyingly disquieting in seeing her in the lead of a film aimed at teenagers—we’re never too sure that she won’t disrobe, kill someone or otherwise flip the film in her usual R-rating territory. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children does have its share of problems: the overall plot feels familiar as a YA work, it’s not quite as dynamic as it could be and the ending suffers from a few poor design choices. But Burton’s style keeps it afloat, and it remains more engaging than most of its YA equivalents. While the result won’t be lauded as one of Burton’s finest, it’s good enough to keep fans of the director interested until his next effort.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) It had been a very long time since I had watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and while some of it stuck (Large Marge, obviously, but also a chain-pulling gag that’s sadly not visible in the widescreen version) much of it hadn’t … and that’s not even talking about the ultra-whimsical vision of the film. Paul Reuben has a checkered history by now, of course, but time softens all scandals and it’s certainly possible to watch this big-screen feature without too much baggage. It helps that the film is so joyously eccentric, from the opening Rube Goldberg machines to the final flip into metafiction. In-between remains, well, a road movie leading to a Hollywood satire. What a program. While Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure may not be strictly hilarious, it is steadily odd and charming at once. It’s a movie almost entirely without peers—a rare quality whether we’re talking about 1985 or 2017. Paul Reuben is unique as Pee-Wee Herman, almost perfectly matching Burton’s vision for the film. It makes for a strong first feature for Burton and one that has aged remarkably well since then.

Beetlejuice (1988)

(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I’ve been re-watching a lot of pre-1997 movies lately, mostly films that I saw before starting to put capsule reviews on this web site. Much of the time, it’s an imposed event: the films haven’t aged well, fall short of what I remember, or don’t benefit from the power of discovery. And then there are exceptions like Beetlejuice, who ends up being just as good, if not better, than what I remembered. Beetlejuice is peak Tim Burton after all, blending gentle horror and black comedy in a mixture that remains largely unique even today. Alec Baldwin is fun as a good-hearted character (especially after his persona solidified in cad roles) while Geena Davis is spectacular as his wife. Winona Rider is remarkable as a goth teen, but it’s Michael Keaton who remains the film’s biggest asset, delivering an unbridled performance as Beetlejuice that remains, even today, a bit of an oddity in a far more restrained filmography. The special effects are still terrific, and their pre-CGI jerkiness adds to the film’s charm. Beetlejuice still works well largely because it’s so off-beat, doing and considering things that would be polished away in today’s far more controlled environment. The two musical numbers are a delight, and the macabre gags still feel faintly daring. It’s a film that certainly doesn’t overdo its welcome and scarcely more than 90 minutes, and it’s still a lot of fun as a comedic Halloween choice. See it if you haven’t, see it again if it’s been awhile—chances are that you will be surprised at how well it holds up.

Batman Returns (1992)

(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) Significantly darker and grimmer than its 1989 predecessor, Batman Returns is at once more frustrating than Batman while being better in some regards. Director Tim Burton is back and obviously has more confidence in his ability to use the character’s mythology to serve his own pet obsessions. Adding two villains works well, although Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman is far more interesting than Danny DeVito’s Penguin. While Batman had a straightforward hero-versus-villain structure, this sequel mixes the cards a bit with additional villains and allies, gets going into heavier themes of abandonment and social validation (Daniel Waters wrote the script!), and seems far more comfortable in its cinematography than the previous film. Alas, some moments don’t work as well: At least twice (the nose bite, the death of the beauty queen, arguably the sad conclusion), the film gets significantly too dark for its own good and wastes some of the viewer’s best intentions. Some rough CGI work is fascinating, but decisively date the film. Still, the set design is arresting, the film moves briskly from one plot point to another, offering a few high points (such as the Masquerade Ball) and smaller rewards from beginning to end. Christopher Walken has a great villainous role, while Michael Keaton remains better than more people remember at Batman/Bruce Wayne. In context, it would take another twelve years (and a superhero wave of movies kicked off by 2000’s X-Men) until Batman got any better on the big screen. Hey, I remember seeing Batman Returns in theatres with friends, back when I actually started going to the movies (which, given that the nearest theatre was twenty kilometres away, was a significant endeavour for a small-town teenager). I can still echo the TV/radio ads: “The Bat, the Cat, The Penguin!”

Big Eyes (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2015) At first, it may be curious to see director Tim Burton, best known for visually inventive film, tackle a “simple” biographical film about an artist.  But that assessment ignores two things: first, how Burton is a dedicated real-life fan of Margaret Keane (to the point of having commissioned at least one painting from her); but also how the story of Keane, long denied credits for paintings due to her husband claiming that he was the true artist, would resonate so deeply with fellow visual-artist Burton.  So it is that despite the low-spectacle visuals of a realistic biography (albeit featuring an unexpected use of visual effects in a short oneiric scene), you can feel Burton engage with his subject and, in doing so, deliver one of his best films in years.  This being said, this isn’t necessarily a masterpiece: De-glammed Amy Adams is very good as Keane, but Christopher Waltz’s manic interpretation of her monstrously egomaniac husband often veers too close to cheap caricature thanks to a narrative firmly beholden to Margaret Keane’s point of view.  Despite the rightfulness of this viewpoint, the film seems to make too many cheap jabs and dilute its own effectiveness in doing so.  Still, the story works and so does the film in general.  The change of pace does Burton good, even though it may mean that Big Eyes doesn’t get half the attention that his other more genre-driven films do. 

Frankenweenie (2012)

(On Cable TV, September 2013) There’s something intensely familiar with Tim Burton’s Frankenwwenie, and that’s a good thing: After nearly a decade in the wilderness, here he is revisiting old obsessions and directing a film that’s close to the goth-suburban aesthetics of his early work, most particularly the classic Edward Scissorhands.  Inspired by two short films from Burton’s early career, Frankenweenie depicts a boy’s adventures after resurrecting his pet dog.  His secret doesn’t hold, his friends all try to emulate him and soon enough the entire neighborhood has problems with undead pets.  Filmed in sharp black-and-white stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie becomes homage to Frankenstein and Burton’s work, obviously, but also to sub-genres of horror cinema including kaiju monster cinema.  It’s not exactly a breath of fresh air, but it’s competently executed, somewhat charming for audiences with some horror-film background and a welcome return to form for Burton after a string of mystifying misfires.  It’s worth a look, even though it may ultimately prove to be forgettable.

Dark Shadows (2012)

(On-demand video, October 2012)  Director Tim Burton’s artistic sensibilities are almost always interesting, but that doesn’t always translate in purely enjoyable films.  I had issues with his latest Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland, but Dark Shadows renews with a strong sense of fun, readapting a long-running supernatural soap opera into a scattershot blend of character comedy, gothic visuals and straightforward plotting.  Johnny Depp turns in another quirky performance as a vampire protagonist, indulging in his usual affectations to create a rather sympathetic blood-sucking hero abruptly thrust from 1760 to 1972.  He is ably surrounded by a good cast, most notably Michelle Pfeiffer as the head of the modern family in need of help by the protagonist.  The adaptation’s 1972 setting is good for a good soundtrack, cheap (but funny) jokes and knowing nostalgia.  (If I wasn’t pressed for time, I’d have something to say about how setting a film thirty years in the past allows context legibility, as we think we know all about 1972 in ways that 2012 still feels very strange and to-be-determined.)  Dark Shadows works in bits and pieces, the overarching plot never as interesting as the film’s various moments.  The fish-out-of-time aspect is tolerable despite its overused nature, the special effects aren’t bad, there are some surprisingly racy/violent moments and the fantastic is well-integrated with the comic (some of the best gags coming from a lack of reverence toward supernatural tropes.)  Where Dark Shadows doesn’t work as well is in trying to present a consistent viewing experience: the straightforward plotting is a bit dull, but the tone of the film keeps going back and forth between avowed camp, earned gothic drama or crowd-pleasing fantastic adventure.  It’s not entirely satisfying… but it is fun, and that certainly counts for something after a few dour entries in Burton’s filmography.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

(On DVD, April 2011) It’s not as if I deliberately waited ten years to see the Planet of the Apes remake, but considering that there was no reason for this “re-imagining” to exist and how savaged the film was upon its release, it’s not as if there was any reason to see it sooner.  No reason except filling up a spot on Tim Burton’s filmography, maybe: For all of his duds, Burton can usually be relied upon to present an original vision on-screen.  Alas, what ends up on the screen in Planet of the Apes feels like a cheap and dumb cardboard fantasy rather than a fully-developed universe.  The script itself has a number of problems, from a lack of complexity to ideas that were best abandoned in fifties Science-Fiction.  But it’s in the presentation of the apes that the film stumbles into the uncanny valley, with characters that sometimes look fine, sometimes look wrong and so never completely convince.  (I still don’t know what it means that I could recognize Paul Giamatti in full ape makeup)  The ape social system (and attendant human slavery) feels like a fable rather than a convincing concept, and the by-the-numbers nature of the film’s plotting is both convenient (apes can talk but they never learned how to swim!  What luck!) and numbing.  As if that wasn’t enough, Planet of the Apes ends with an epilogue that means to evoke chills in the Twilight Zone tradition, but only ends up sealing the film’s nonsensical lack of appeal.  Ten years later, well, there’s not much left in the remake: It may have been the tenth-grossing film of 2001, but the original still remains the cultural reference.  Anyone who hasn’t yet seen this one shouldn’t be in any hurry to do so.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) The good news with Tim Burton is that he is guaranteed to put a vision on screen.  Alas, it may not be the vision you would prefer.  So it is that this loose sequel to the classic Alice in Wonderland is an affront to my aesthetic preferences: At the exception of the oh-so-cute Cheshire Cat, I found the film’s artistic choices ugly.  This is partly intentional; after all, the point of this follow-up is that Wonderland has grown tainted; the magic has fled the land and been replaced by corruption.  {Insert heavy-duty genre fantasy narrative schematics inspired by John Clute here.}  No wonder everything is so repulsive.  The showy use of 3D makes moments of the film look even more incomprehensible and overdone to 2D audiences.  But as hard as it is to ignore Alice in Wonderland’s visuals, the real snore comes from the plot, which feels as Alice filtered through the Lord of the Rings plot template that has informed almost a full decade of genre cinema fantasy by now.  It’s dull, and the overdone shot of the two armies running to clash together has become almost parody.  Alice in Wonderland becomes duller as it goes on, and not even Johnny Depp’s increasingly active Mad Hatter (or Anne Hathaway’s regal presence, for that matter) can do much to redeem the rest of the picture.  It’s a middling fantasy film at best: when “dull” and “ugly” crop up in the same review, there’s little room for favourable quotes.

Batman (1989)

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it’s becoming easier to forget about Tim Burton’s reinvention of the character, before it slid once again in franchise-killing high camp during the Joel Schumacher years. And that’s a shame, because despite some increasingly dated aspects, Batman still keeps an operatic grandeur that resonates even today. The story is thin and eighties-fashion still peeks through the self-conscious blend of historical references, but the entire film remains intriguing. Health Ledger may have taken over the Joker’s look, but Jack Nicholson’s take on the character remains magnetic. Only an underwhelming finale falters visibly: While everyone remembers the Batman/Joker showdown in the streets of Gotham, fewer will recall the following sequence taking place in a cathedral. Two decades after the film’s release, the special edition DVD can afford to be candid about the film’s rushed production, last-minute producer-driven script changes and casting choices. Alas, director Burton’s commentary track could have benefited from judicious editing: His “you know?”s start grating early on and never fade away.

(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t watched Batman in more than ten years, but another look was more than warranted given rapid evolution of superhero movies since then. Tim Burton’s Batman turns out to be a significant step in the evolution of Batman’s movie portrayal from sixties silliness to Nolan’s grimmer portrayal. It’s certainly trying to be more serious, but it can’t completely manage it. It doesn’t help that Burton’s vision for his characters (and particularly the joker) is so colourful and exuberant: it’s tough to keep a straight face at what Jack Nicholson pulls off in his completely unrestrained performance. Otherwise, it’s fascinating to see in here the seeds of the modern superhero blockbuster, albeit with pre-digital effects, restrained cinematography and somewhat more silliness. (Not included in the movie, but far more important, are the media tie-in and marketing effort surrounding the film, which I remember more than the movie itself) Michael Keaton is better than anyone may remember as Bruce Wayne/Batman, while Kim Basinger is spectacular as Vicki Vale. The ending is a bit dull (the Joker shooting down the batwing is memorable, but the subsequent cathedral sequence isn’t), but there are enough good scenes along the way to make it worthwhile. It’s probably impossible to overstate Batman’s impact on the modern blockbuster industry, but there’s actually a worthwhile film underneath the hype.