Throwback Thirty – Beetlejuice (1988)

30 years, 30th birthday, blogging, film, film blogger, film blogging, fucking creepy, fucking funny, ghosts, Michael Keaton, review, TBT, Tim Burton

I have a confession to make before we carry on with out weekly business of reviewing a random film from the year 1988. This wasn’t the film that I originally pulled out of my jar for this week. Yes, I have (kind of) cheated on my Throwback Thirty mission and we’re only 3 weeks in. Last week I pulled Short Circuit 2 out of the jar and was all set to do my usual thing. However, in an act of insanity I decided it was only fair to rewatch Short Circuit before the sequel in order to get the best viewing experience. As such, my week just got away from me and I decided I wouldn’t have time to fit everything in. In an act of utter desperation and reeking with shame, I pulled another name out of the jar. So, I will watch Short Circuit 2 in time for next Thursday. I, bizarrely, feel genuinely quite bad about having to cheat this week. It’s madness because it’s a format that I imposed myself and a series of rules that I, alone, am enforcing. I could do whatever the fuck I wanted and nobody reading this would know. But it means a lot to me for some reason… probably because I have so little going on in my life right now. So, unfortunately, my viewing this week has been a little tainted with my disappointment in myself. An immense shame considering my second pick from my jar of films is one of my favourites in there. It’s also the only time that I can think of that I’ve found myself attracted to Alec Baldwin. There’s something about the combo of those glasses, that hair, and his tan trousers that just gets me… but I digress.

TBT – Big Fish (2003)

films, fucking awesome, fucking sad, fucking sweet, reviews, TBT, Tim Burton

When it comes to my Thursday post I basically just trawl Netflix for a while until I find a film that I really want to watch. It means I’m just rewatching films that I’ve loved for years but I’m okay with that. It’s the best of both worlds I suppose. Although, it does mean that I mostly just end up writing gushing reviews for the films I wholeheartedly adore. I watched this week’s film when it first came out in the cinema nearly 14 years ago and have had a soft spot for it ever since. A friend bought me the book it was based on after we saw it but, if I’m honest, I never finished. For one thing, the author had the same as a boy in my class and it was a bit too weird. Basically because he was a bit weird. Secondly, I think it was a mistake reading it after seeing the film because, due to the changes, the film’s narrative was tighter. I think I lost my way with the book when the vicious dog turned up. I know I know. As a bookish person it should be “the book is always better” but sometimes it has to be okay to prefer the film. Especially when Ewan McGregor and Tim Burton are involved.

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions is a novel by Daniel Wallace that retells the life of a great storyteller. Throughout the narrative his son tries to get his father to tell him the truth and connect these tall tales with reality. At it’s heart, Big Fish is just the story of a man trying to understand his father before he dies. When it was made into a film it seemed like the perfect story for Tim Burton to tell. Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has spent his later years retelling the stories of his youth to his son, Will no matter how unbelievable they appeared to be. As he grew up hearing the tales over and over, Will (Billy Crudup), started to see them as more annoying that exciting. Constantly hearing his father’s outrageous stories caused barriers to come between the pair and, upon returning home to say goodbye, Will attempts to find out more about the man behind the myths.

This is the film that Tim Burton was destined to make. Who better but the visionary director to help bring this book to life? Edward Bloom, like Burton, is a natural storyteller who believes real life could do with a bit of help from more magical elements. It is a film that explores the relationship between real life and fantasy and how the two can work together. The narrative speaks to Burton’s sensibilities as a director and allows him to be whimsical, funny and dark but gives him a constant grounding in reality. It gives him every chance to create the kind of visuals he has become known for and the quirkiness he inevitably brings to every project without feeling disjointed. We see small towns that look like something out of Edward Scissor Hands or creepy forests that could easily be used in Sleepy Hollow. He takes Wallace’s already fantastical tale and gives it a proper Tim Burton spin.

Big Fish is a clever film that, in other hands, could easily have fallen apart. So much depends on the representation of Edward and Will that you need a firm hand at the wheel. It was important not to present Edward as a crazy old fool who repeats his fantastical ramblings about events that never happened. The audience needs to love him and see why people love his stories. Thankfully, the film is presented as flashbacks with Ewan McGregor stepping into young Edward’s shoes. McGregor is able to bring as much charm and effortless likeability to the character that it’s impossible not to get swept away with the tall tales Mixed with Albert Finney’s held-back performance as the elder Edward, we see a man who you want to believe no matter how hard it is.

However, Burton is not trying to champion a way of life that relies solely on fictional representations of real events. Finney does showcase the irritable side of Edward’s personality to the extent that you can also understand where Will is coming from. Stories are all well and good when you are a child but, eventually, it would be nice to hear the truth. Crudup plays his part well and gives a subtle approach to the father son rift. However, it is Will’s final moments with his father that really shine out. A lesser actor would have built up the emotional aspects of the scene but Crudup holds back. He allows the final meeting of the minds to speak for itself and lets the story do it’s job. It’s a fantastic performance.

Big Fish is one of those films that can easily divide opinion. To someone it may seem schmaltzy and twee. To me it skirts the two without ever falling into the danger zone. There are some excellent supporting performances from Hollywood greats like Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, and Danny DeVito. Jessica Lange gives a brilliant performance as Edward’s true love, Sandra, who is played by an equally fabulous Alison Lohman in her younger days. It is a truly Tim Burton production with his usual cast of players and his traditional visuals. It is constantly very funny and gut wrenchingly sad. No matter how many times I watch it, that final scene has me in an stream of tears. However, it is a more sophisticated story… or at least a different kind of story. Exploring the relationship between father and son and the acceptance of their little foibles. It is a film that tells us, fact is all very well and good but sometimes it’s better to bend that truth.

TBT – Batman (1989)

Batman, comic books, DC, Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, superhero, TBT, Tim Burton

Everyone has their favourite incarnation of Bruce Wayne. After this years Batman vs Superman some may well say Batffleck is their number one and even I have to admit that he was ABS-olutely fantastic in the role. Then there are those fucking idiots that will say Christian Bale is the top dog. However, that just goes to prove that people are easily pleased and that Christopher Nolan can make anyone look better than they are. There’s a reason that Heath Ledger is the main thing people talk about when they discuss the Dark Knight trilogy: Christian Bale is so forgettable in the role the supporting characters outshine him. I also imagine, because human beings continue to surprise me, that there are those who prefer the nippley George Clooney and Val Kilmer. Of course, we all know that they are probably mentally unstable or have only seen Joel Schumacher’s two films. Now when it comes to the ultimate Batman there can only be one real winner. Yes, my favourite and, by association, the Number 1 big screen portrayal of Gotham’s vigilante is Michael Keaton. Tim Burton’s Batman and the slightly superior Batman Returns are just amazing. Which is why I’m going to talk about the first of them this week.

We owe a lot to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. Let’s be honest, before that came along the caped crusader was best known as the homoerotic and super cartoony Adam West version. You know the colourful chap who hung about with a boy in super tight and super tiny shorts. It was Tim Burton and co. who let the world see a darker and more serious version of the hero who would only get darker and more serious as the years went by. It came out during a time when the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore were taking part in a graphic novel overhaul for the character and bringing him into a grittier world than he was used to. However, when it came to those outside of comic book circles, Batman was still that camp 1960s show that was something to laugh and cringe along with. Which is why, when it was announced that 1980s comic actor Michael Keaton was to take the role comic book fans were filled with such a murderous rage. It seemed like Burton was taking a step backwards.

Of course, as we know now, that all changed when the film was released. Tim Burton brought his Gothic edge to the world of Batman and showed the world a different side to the infamous vigilante. We open on a version of Gotham that is in the middle of an economic and social downturn. Things are difficult for the people of the city and crime is taking over. This isn’t the 1960s circus town that we were used to. Batman was angry and covered in black, Robin was nowhere to be seen, and the Joker was leaving bodies in his wake. Suffice it to day, this wasn’t the Batman that cinema goers were used to. This was a version of the hero that spoke about the decade in which he appeared and the story spoke of the troubles that many saw facing society at the time.

As such, the film is less about Batman than it is about aesthetics and socio-political messages. The story doesn’t really follow the comics and there are several infamous moments that have infuriated comic book fans for years. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. There is something great about this film, which is probably helped by the fact the superhero wasn’t the main focus. There is something very real about the whole thing and the classic fairy tale narrative of good vs evil is timeless in a way that perhaps Christopher Nolan’s works aren’t. This isn’t the story of who Batman is or why he decided to dress up as a bat one day. It is the story of an ordinary man fighting against the great evils that are plaguing society. It speaks to everyone.

Now, I’d be lying if I said this film was perfect because it isn’t. There are several things that could be better and a handful of subplots that could be dispensed with entirely. The Vikki Vale/Joker connection seemed tacked on and the Prince soundtrack does kind of feel out-of-place. Still, there is a great deal to love about this film. It comes down to the basic principle of good vs evil but explores the idea further by revealing that the Joker was the person who killed Batman’s parents. In this sense, the Joker created Batman and Batman helped create a world where the Joker could thrive. This isn’t just a fight but a reciprocal relationship. It’s a revelation that won’t please comic fans in the slightest but is something I have also felt to be a fascinating twist to the tale.

Batman set out a solid environment for the further growth of the hero and his desire to save his city.  It paved the way for the better film Batman Returns 3 years later whilst still being a great film in its own right. It was basically the X-Men of it’s day.  Yes it doesn’t boast the best narrative or script of the many adaptations that have appeared since but it gave us a truly inspirational portrayal of the man behind the mask. Michael Keaton is fantastic in the role and, despite existing in a world full of action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnie, genuinely looks like a playboy who suddenly decided to fight crime. I also happen to prefer Jack Nicholson’s Joker. I know that’s probably one of the most controversial things I’ve ever said on this blog (and there’s been a few) but it’s true. Yes, he may seem quaint and camp when compared to Heath Ledger but he inhabits everything that I understood about the Joker. He’s crazy and homicidal but he also just wants to have fun. Something that Tim Burton and co. are also happy to do in the midst of all the death and despair. This film doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by more modern adaptations. It’s too fucking good.

TBT – Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

animation, Christmas, stop motion, TBT, Tim Burton

Despite spending my last post bemoaning the sudden influx of all things Christmas I’m about to embrace the season of goodwill to all men. You see there’s a secret clause (HA!) in my whole ‘no Christmas movies until December rule’. There is one film that combines the months of October and December in such a way that it’s totally okay to watch it any time during November. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas staple. Not watching it at least once would be like not having a fucking tree or a turkey. It’s also not directed by Tim Burton. I vividly remember during my undergraduate degree nearly getting into an argument about that very fact whilst on a bus. I’d just been to see Coraline with my flatmate and had to bite my tongue as someone behind my started telling his friends that the film, from the director of Nightmare, was such a typical Burton film. I was fucking livid because I’m something of a pretentious twat like that.

I’ve feel bad for Henry Selick. It’s absolutely shitty how often his works gets attributed to Tim Burton. I’ve always liked him more because of this fact. It’s the same way that I used to ‘support’ Ralf Schumacher and say that my favourite member of Boyzone was Mikey. I’m naturally drawn to someone who’s overlooked by everyone. It’ll be a younger twin thing: a psychologist would have a fucking field day with me.

However, there is no denying that, unlike Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a Tim Burton film. It is, after all, based on an idea he had back in the early 80s. The film is weird and creepy. It takes inspiration from so many other people but manages to create something unusual and unique. It’s one of the most original and exciting Christmas films that has ever been made and its fucking ridiculous that Disney nearly didn’t let it get made.

The film introduces us to the residents of Halloween town and their ghoulish ways. The town hero, Jack Skellington, is celebrated by his fellow townspeople. Every year he helps create the spectacular Halloween celebrations but Jack is bored of his repetitive life. Thankfully he discovers Christmas town and his eyes are opened to a world of colour, candy and the Sandy Claws.

Getting back home, Jack tells the town all about this new holiday and starts planning his own Christmas party. Clearly things get a bit weird and scary: rather than treats the children are left tricks in their stockings. With Jack getting carried away playing Santa, it is left up to Sally, a rag-doll create by the local mad scientist, to stop Jack from fucking Christmas up for all the boys and girls.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a truly magnificent film and, at only 74 minutes, is the perfect length for the whole family. It has something to appeal to everyone and the stop motion animation is charming. The style changes to fit in with the various settings. It’s fucking beautiful film with influences from all over the worlds of art, film and literature.

Henry Selick has created a world that is totally unrecognisable and unusual but that is so easy to get lost in. It is a visual triumph that stands up a good twenty years after it was first created. There is a reason this film has become a centerpiece of Disney’s annual Christmas festivities. Selick takes the concept of a holiday with such traditional iconography and turns it round so it seems fresh. It’s fucking amazing.

Then you have the music. Burton’s regular collaborator, Danny Elfman, created 10 original songs for the film once Burton decided it should be a musical. Elfman has since said it was one of the easiest jobs he’s ever had and it certainly offers one of the best soundtracks of all time. The lyrics are funny and the orchestration is just perfect. Anyone who doesn’t spend October 31st singing ‘This is Halloween’ on repeat is just a freak as far as I’m concerned.

The Nightmare Before Christmas works so beautifully as a holiday film because it celebrates everything you love about both Halloween and Christmas without being par for the course. It stands out against all the other films portraying portly old men with rosy cheeks and a grandfatherly grin. It was a creative solution to an over-saturated market. It’s also one of the best advocates out there for the endless possibilities of stop-motion animation. It’s no wonder it’s so regularly voted as top Christmas film of all time.

Dark Shadows (2012)

Chloe Grace Moretz, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, reboot, review, television, Tim Burton, witch

“Hey, have you heard? Tim Burton and Johnny Depp did another film together.”

“Not again.  This bromance is getting out of control. If they like each other so much why don’t they finally just get it on and leave us all in peace.”
“I think he’s already married to that actress who always turns up in his movies.”
“Of course he bloody is. Who can even remember how many films the two of them have made together anymore?!”
Of course, dear reader, we all know that the number of Depp/Burton collaborations to date is, in fact, eight (the number he made starring his wife is a slightly less obsessive 6). The latest being Burton’s big screen version of the cult gothic soap opera of the 60s and 70s, Dark Shadows. I was incredibly excited to see this film (even if it did take me about 7 months to actually get round to it). Not because of the connection with the show (as a child of the 80s/90s I only became aware of it thanks to this film) but because I unashamedly adore Tim Burton. Yes that’s right, dear friends, I am Murdocal and I’m a Burton-holic. I’ve started to discover a growing number of people who are quick to criticise his gothic genius and I simply don’t understand it. I realise that some of his films have missed the mark of late but, like Woody Allen, I remain loyal and naively go into every new Burton film believing it will be his best. So, like a child heading to bed on Christmas Eve, I sat down to watch full of an innocent hope that a distinctively dressed man would deliver the present I’d been dreaming of.

And there was so much potential. The trailer suggested this would be a dark, vampire-based comedy with an amazing cast and fantastic Burton-esque visuals. He cites the television series as one his first major inspirations and the film is full of opportunities for Burton to work his magic and pay homage. Opening in 18th Century Maine where Barnabas Collins, the only son of a family of fishing tycoons, spurns the affection of Angelique (Eva Green) who, unfortunately, turns out to be not only pissed off but also a witch. Needless to say she vows revenge on Barnabas and sets about ruining his life. Once his parents are out of the way she brings about the demise of the true object of his affection, Josette (Bella Heathcote). As a final insult to injury she prevents Barnabas from following his love to the afterlife by turning him into a vampire and burying him in a crate for 200 years. As opening sequences go, this sets the audience up for a great ride. The gothic styling is perfect and the performances by Depp and Green are exaggerated but on target with the necessary sensibility.

The mood changes once a strange twist of fate releases Barnabas from his grave and into the bright and confusing world of the 1970s. Much of the humour depends on the oft seen ‘fish out of water’ trope as Barnabas gets used to his modern setting. For his part, Depp plays the vampire at odds with himself remarkably well. And who would expect anything else? If there’s one person who knows exactly how to bring the Burton it’s Depp. That he happens to be a fan of the original series also helps. His own Barnabas is a charming and often amusing creature who finds himself dealing with a world he could never have dreamed of.
As a central character you couldn’t really ask for better but it is still not enough to bring together the many plot strands that demand our attention. Unfortunately, it’s a simple case of too many plots spoil the broth: Barnabas’ mission to revitalise the family business; his romance with the new governess (significantly also played by Heathcote); bringing together his crumbling family; and his connection with their live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). All of these stories are given some time to introduce themselves before being dropped into cinematic oblivion. The mysterious governess who is set up to be a character of major significance is absent for much of the plot and is never given the chance to explore the part she has to play in the grand scheme of things.
The remains of the Collins family are portrayed by an array of big names but, again, they are never given the chance to show off their collected talent. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the head of the family but, for the most part, you can’t help but feel that she is just going through the motion.  As are Johnny Lee Miller, in his role as her sleazy brother, and Helena Bonham Carter, playing the quirky Dr Hoffman, who both float through their roles in a truly forgettable manner.
 There is a slight ray of sunshine thanks to the Collins family’s very own wild-child daughter, played by one of the few teenagers I don’t automatically detest and fear, Chloë Grace Moretz. (Before I go on, I have to admit that I both love Moretz and am utterly jealous of her. At 9 years my junior, she is already better presented, more grown-up and has a greater understanding of how clothes work than I ever will. Bloody youths.) She very much embraces her 70s teenager with her dreamy/stoned demeanour being broken up by moments of rage and brattiness. She is funny in a dark, sarcastic and slightly emo way and is my favourite character in the whole film. Although once again, Seth Grahame-Smith’s script doesn’t give her, or the equally compelling Gulliver McGrath, the chance to get to grips with the character. They are awkwardly shoehorned into the action when it is necessary and then forgotten about when it all becomes a bit of a hassle.  
What is worse than this hodgepodge of storylines, horribly edited down and squashed together to fit into a more audience friendly 113 minute running time, is the almost schizophrenic tone of the whole thing. The opening sequence is reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow in its gothic and, at times, gruesome brilliance but this is brushed aside to bring in a light-hearted comedic melodrama about a vampire from the 1700s failing to understand television and lava lamps (lol). Then we suddenly go back to a much more serious, dark film about killer vampires and murderous witches. It is a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be and the writer/director combo never quite tie together the comedy, horror, family drama and Gothic romance into a complete picture. This being the main problem with trying to edit down an entire television series into one 2 hour film: having to get across all of the information you need to and creating a complete and exciting story. It is never quite achieved but there are certain moments of brilliance within each of the separate factions.
A brilliance that is mirrored in the films visuals. The thing you can rely on with Tim Burton is to make a visually beautiful film. The sets are fantastically put together and the styling is mesmerising. The fantastic Collins manor has been lovingly created with great attention to detail and is worthy of all the praise that Barnabas includes in his return speech. The vampire himself is a triumph of costume and make-up. With Depp channelling his best Nosferatu complete with pale white face and nails with the handy ability to dig grooves in a wooden floor, Barnabas is in keeping with the traditional Burton style of quirky and partly creepy outsider. Also witnessed in the terrifying Angelique who is decently played by Eva Green, despite her ridiculous accent (unless I’m mistaken and that is actually a great example of an American accent). Green clearly had a great time whilst playing the witch scorned and provides a slight breath of fresh air in the midst of a group of actors who don’t really seem to realise they are in the middle of filming.
So this may not be the film that I had hoped for when I saw the trailer all those months ago but, you know what, it wasn’t bad. (To quote Peter Bradshaw, as I so often do nowadays, it was “whelming.”)  In no way does it come close to Burton at his best but, if you look hard enough, you can certainly find a great deal more in his repertoire that is inferior. There is a lot to like in this film but you can’t help but get the impression that, initially, there was a lot more. Are we viewing the director’s labour of love that simply got out of hand and suffered in order to see a release? I can understand completely. In my second year of university I wrote an essay that ended up being double the word limit. In a mad attempt to cut it down I’m pretty sure my sentences stopped making grammatical sense. So it’s ok Tim. I’ve been there… and do you know what? I still have faith.