DIRECTOR TIM BURTON!
Tim Burton has had a pretty checkered career hasn't he. After becoming one of the most popular and sought after filmmakers in the late 80s and early 90s, he's had a pretty hit or miss subsequent 20 years in the director's chair. To be honest, I'd argue that his successful run between 1985 and 1994 is as good a record as any in the mainstream...starting with PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, moving on to BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, with the halcyon days ending at around ED WOOD. Since then Burton's made what, maybe three really good movies if we're being generous. Seriously, look no further than 2012 as an illustrative microcosm for his up and down career, as he helmed both DARK SHADOWS and FRANKENWEENIE in the same calendar year. The first was utterly abysmal, the second was pretty damn solid. I wonder what accounts for such a disparity? Why the inconsistency? But you know what jack, f*ck wonder, let's officially Dissect Tim Burton's rocky road of a career and get some damn answers!
While I will always hold BEETLEJUICE and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS as my most beloved Burton films (still got the poster on the wall), I cannot front on how special ED WOOD is an overall achievement in moviemaking. It really is a wonderful film. And I think the major reasons the film works so well as a whole is twofold. First off, Burton so palpably identifies with the subject of the movie, 50s cult-b-movie director Ed Wood. Burton sees himself the way Hollywood and society saw Ed Wood - as a misunderstood pariah, a werido, an iconoclast, but most importantly, as a man so unyielding in his vision that he really never cares what outside voices have to say. Suits, critics, fans, don't matter...Burton's gonna do what he wants to do, for better or for worse. That's admirable. In fact, after making MARS ATTACKS! he was wryly accused of being a little too ED WOOD-like in his execution of vision. And the second reason I think ED WOOD is a cut above, is because it's a chance to showcase what great affinity Burton has for cinema itself, and the (horror) heroes he idolized growing up, not just Ed Wood, but Bela Lugosi, Orson Welles, and other real life show biz players that pop up in the film. It's a beautiful love-letter to the golden age of studio horror films.
For those who know not, ED WOOD is more or less a slice of life bio of its title character, played brilliantly by Johnny Depp, you know, when he still cared about doing good work. Ed Wood is the most dogged, determined, optimistic filmmaker of all time, but sadly, completely bereft of actual talent. Oh, and he's an open cross-dresser to boot. So not only is Depp playing a wild real life character, as he did so often in the 90s, the film also features the great Martin Landau in an Oscar winning performance as famed horror legend Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray studs a supporting cast that also includes Patricia Arquette, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeffrey Jones, Max Casella and G.D. Spradlin. Add it all up and it's Burton at his most daring thematically, and his most stunning technically. Shot in gorgeous black and white by Stefan Czapsky.
Of the 16 features Burton's helmed to date, I'm quite confident in calling DARK SHADOWS is his biggest misfire. I mean, wow! What can only be labeled a vanity project or a slice of over-indulgence - who besides Burton and Depp wanted to see a cinematic update of a campy and kitschy horror-soap from the 60s? Who the hell was this film aimed at to begin with? I get the humor of a fish out of water story, but where were the laughs in DARK SHADOWS? Depp looked like a f*cking Twilight lesbian with the worst emo-haircut I've seen in some time. Other than that...humorless. Such a shame too when considering the high wattage star power in the cast: Michelle Pfeiffer (my woman!), Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Moretz and Christopher Lee. They all deserve better, just as we Burton fans do. I mean, don't even get me started on ALICE IN WONDERLAND, so too a terrible effort from a more than capable director. The 3D on that flick was criminal, but being a CG Disney flick, I guess I can cut it more slack than the live-action realm of DARK SHADOWS, again, with that cast especially. No fun!
Goddamn, how many Burton trademarks can we enumerate in a single sitting? Seriously, there are very few filmmakers whose work you can identify by simply seeing a frame or two of any one film of theirs. Burton is certainly one of those people. Be it the garish, Gothic production design of something like BEETLEJUICE or SCISSORHANDS, or the consistent casting of people like Johnny Depp, Catherine O'Hara, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeffrey Jones...or the oh so distinguishable musical scores of longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman...Tim has many ways of setting his films apart from his contemporaries. Hell, my man even subverts the studio logo that plays before each of his films by drawing up a slightly different, personal version of it. Dude's out there!
In fact, so singular and visionary are most Burton productions - whether good or bad - that he's sort of created his very own stylistic trademark...the Burton way, if you will. Not many filmmakers can make that claim. But Burton has, continuing to feature bleak and bizarre artistic designs and deeply tormented outcasts as lead characters.
Recurring visual cues in Burton's films also include elaborate flashback sequences, old architecture (castles, churches, keeps, etc.), nighttime snowfall, scarecrows, striped clothing, dead or dismembered dogs (FRANKENWEENIE) and unnamed cityscapes. So take that!
With the mega-success his films have enjoyed over the years, it's sort of hard to find a hidden gem in the 16 features Burton has directed. I do think it's worth noting that, in 1986, Burton adapted the short Rad Bradbury story "The Jar" as a TV episode for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (find that shite on Youtube). Pretty damn cool factoid!
I could call attention to some of the smaller productions - stuff like CORPSE BRIDE and FRANKENWEENIE as overlooked Burton works. Hell, I really dug the graphic gore grisly nature of SWEENEY TODD, but really thought the songs made for an overall awkward experience. Or just for its silly B-movie cult status, MARS ATTACKS! is a pretty fun film. But is it a hidden gem? Perhaps a bit more seeded is BIG FISH, a splendid film of Burton's that's wildly different than his prior work. But you know what, it's not quite genre specific enough, so instead let's just officially look at SLEEPY HOLLOW as Burton's most glossed over film.
As the new TV show has expounded upon, SLEEPY HOLLOW tells the infamous legend of Ichabod Crane and his tireless efforts to solve a rash of murders perpetrated by mysterious being known as The Headless Horseman. Well, in Burton's 1999 film version, his trademark Gothic stylings are suited perfectly for the period affectations of old Hammer movies and that of Mario Bava. Of course, Depp heads an all-star cast that includes Christopher Walken, Christina Ricci, Michael Gough, Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Lee and others. The result is a highly satisfying, atmospheric whodunit with an R-rated story worthy of Burton's visual panache. That said, I do wish Burton had shot the original script Andrew Kevin Walker (SEVEN, 8MM) wrote, as it was said to have way more violence in it, ultimately toned down by script doctor Tom Stoppard. Still, for a lesser known Burton flick with some serious bite, SLEEPY HOLLOW is the one!
About a week before last Halloween, word dropped down from a supposed "very reliable" source that Tim Burton was clearing his schedule to direct the long-gesticulating BEETLEJUCIE 2. How dope would that be? I mean, if it has to be remade, it should only be done so with Burton and Michael Keaton reprising their duties. That said, I love the original so much, and it was so much a fabric of my childhood growing up, that I wouldn't mind seeing it completely unfettered. Unfortunately, we haven't heard anything about BEETLEJUICE 2 since, so who knows how much validity there is to that story. So instead, we'll bring up the movie, albeit a non-genre joint, that we know Burton is directing next. It's a picture called BIG EYES, currently in postproduction.
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp, Danny Huston, Jon Polito and Jason Schwartzman - BIG EYES is a drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.
Okay, so it's not the typical Burton outing. But here's why I'm encouraged. The writers of BIG EYES, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, are the same dudes who wrote ED WOOD, which I argue above still remains Burton's finest film achievement. Also, I actually kind of like the idea of Burton doing something completely different than what he's known for. How about you?
Over a nearly 30 year career, Tim Burton has truly carved out his own brand of cinema. His style of visual storytelling cannot be confused with another, despite whether or not the film is actually any good. And let's be honest, his latest flicks have been trending toward a 50-50 proposition. To my mind, of the 16 movies he's made, the following fall into the good-to-great category: PEE-WEE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, ED WOOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW, BIG FISH, FRANKENWEENIE and CORPSE BRIDE. In the not-so-good-to-bad: MARS ATTACKS!, SWEENEY TODD, PLANET OF THE APES, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DARK SHADOWS. That's nearly a 2:1 ratio now, but the most recent films seem to be his worst. In short, perhaps Burton's best filmmaking days are long behind him. Do you think that's the case, or do you think he still has a great movie or two in him deep down? I guess we'll see later this year with the release of BIG EYES!