Friday, April 26, 2013

Director Retrospective: Tim Burton Part 4

The final leg of Burton’s career is where things begin to fall apart, which is odd because it has easily the biggest hit of his career and one of his most critically acclaimed ones too. But, over the course of the decade, he’d been gathering criticism and it wasn’t until 2010 that it finally all came crashing down on him, at least for me. But it began with…

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I’m gonna be honest; I love this movie. I’ve heard alternate opinions about it, that it’s overstuffed or it’s not a good adaptation of the musical or that it’s not well acted, but I don’t buy any of those things, I think it’s brilliant. And honestly, the reason it’s brilliant is a single word; Style.

The style of this movie is one of the best things about this movie, at least in my opinion, in how consistent it is. The clothes don’t look like clothes, they look like costumes. The weapons and tools they have don’t look like something practical, they look like art designed props. This is one of those things actually sinks movies typically, but it’s so committed and consistent about it, it becomes a unique and imaginative visual style. It actually fits the movie’s style that they boil down Sondheim’s big booming musical numbers to these hissing, snarled spoken word pieces set to the music. Yeah, that was probably because none of the leads are precisely singers, but it works with the movie’s savagely and unrelenting dark tone.

If there’s something else that sells this movie to me, besides Burton’s incredible direction, it’s Depp’s incredible (and oddly, for such a weird movie, Oscar nominated) performance. Johnny Depp is like a more stable Nicholas Cage, in that he doesn’t do middle ground. When he’s off or not caring, he’s completely off, but when he’s on his is ON, and here he is on, firing all cylinders in a bizarre role that would intimidate other actors, and his energy permeates throughout the entire movie, buoyed by great performances by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.

There are flaws, some of them inherited from the musical, (the weird way in which the romance between Joanna and Anthony feels disconnected and irrelevant), some not (the way Toby’s singing doesn’t gel with the rest of the singing in the movie) but it’s overall one of my favorite musical films of all time, and in my opinion, Burton’s last truly great movie. And it was a big success, for a weird, dark R-Rated musical about a serial killer, and the critics loved it, netting three Oscar nominations (Actor, Costumes and Art Direction) and winning one. Things were still looking up for Burton and his fans.

Alice in Wonderland

Ugh… I hate this movie. I really do. I honestly think it’s the worst movie of Burton’s career. It’s the movie that epitomizes Burton’s problem with structure (I did say I’d talk about it) in that the movie doesn’t seem to have a structure, in the strictest sense. It doesn’t even have a plot frankly. The movie just sort of meanders around, building up an idiotic internal mythology and lovingly recreating the denizens of Wonderland until it’s got enough semblance of a plot to get to it’s dumb climax and it’s dull ending.

And I frankly wonder what else there really is to say about it, past that. It was actually kind of weird to watch this after Sweeney, because while there Depp was acting his ass off, here he just seems oddly uninvolved, going through the motions (I refuse to start singing Once More With Feeling here, but know that I want to). Carter also seems oddly unengaged, which contrasts sort of irritatingly how well Anne Hathaway is doing at the Fairy Princess bit.

In a way, it’s sort of result of the source material that the movie doesn’t have a plot, because neither does the book. Alice just sort of wanders around Wonderland, remarking on how weird everything is. And I think, if the movie was more like that, then it actually could have worked. When it’s just about Alice wandering about Wonderland, it comes close to working. When it decides to have a plot, it falls apart because its plot is mind numbingly stupid. It starts out irritating and by the time we get to the Pelanor Fields recreation, with Alice as some kind of warrior maiden (ugh) and the Mad Hatter with his giant broadsword (UGH) I get actively angry.

Despite my own hatred for it, the critics didn’t savage it but…they didn’t love it either. No one seemed to really have anything to say about it, but audiences seemed to love it. It made over a billion dollars, easily Burton’s highest grossing film. So he just got to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do was…

A movie version of a soap opera no one really remembers much about these days. Yuppppppp.

I reviewed this movie already, so I’ll try to keep this short, but my criticism stands and it did not improve on a second viewing. It’s not bad in the way that Apes or Alice or even Charlie is, it’s just so fucking boring. I watch it, it happens and I don’t care. A lot of this has to do with Depp, who is completely checked out here which makes it hard for the other actors to salvage it. Especially since a lot of them (most notably Helena Bonham Carter) don’t really add a whole ton to the plot. The movie as a whole is oddly lifeless despite it’s bizarre concept, going through the motions of it’s plot and arcs without anything really engage it’s audience.

I will say that the biggest issue this movie has (aside from it’s complete lack of structure) is an oddly lopsided character dynamic. The interplay between Barnabus and Angelique is easily the most entertaining part of the movie, and so gets afforded a lot of screentime. But the movie keeps trying to tell us that his relationship with the governess or the son is more important, but it never really gives enough screentime to make those subplots engaging or interesting.

Like it’s predecessors, Dark Shadows made money, but not as much as anyone was expecting from a director/actor team up that had last anyone had seen grossed over a billion dollars. Not a lot of the critics had good things to say either, but many of them seemed to be getting tired of the Burton and Depp dynamic. And so, for his next film, for the first time in 9 years, Burton ditched Depp.

This is another one I’m going to keep short, as my (rather abbreviated) review of it is still up, but I liked it when I first saw it and I still do. It’s not great, but it’s good natured and well made and I like it. It has a mostly narrow focus that keeps it tight held together.

The movie’s biggest strengths lie not in it’s winking references to old films (though I will say it has plenty of those, including one to Gamera of all things) but its sincerity. It has a lot of Burton’s usual problems (including a slightly awkward structure, naturally) but I still liked it a lot. And it must be said, Tim Burton’s visual style really fits with black and white. I don’t know if it’s signals a return to form from Burton, but on it’s own merits, it’s a solid movie.

So what lies ahead for Tim Burton? Well supposedly his next film is going to be called Big Eyes. It’s a biopic about Walter Keane, an artist best known for painting big eyed waifs, starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Wait, those names sound familiar. Lemme look them up.

They also wrote Ed Wood. Alright, I’m in.

And not just because of the Ed Wood connection, but also because Johnny Depp isn’t in it. Yes, both Burton and Depp have done some of their best work together, but lately I’ve begun feeling like they need to spend some time apart. They seem to be almost too in synch, which means they never question their instincts. And while they have good instincts for the most part (well…maybe not Depp lately. Lone Ranger looks like a disaster) it’s good to have someone around you who questions your decisions and will suggest new ideas on how to make your ideas better. That’s what separates A New Hope from The Phantom Menace. Maybe once they’ve spent some time apart they can team up again.

Wow, that retrospective took longer than I was expecting (life kept interfering). I’ve got an idea for who I want to do for my next one, but I don’t want to name names in case I chicken out. Because the pattern means that the next one has to be a director I hate…

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