Category Archives: the Burton Brief

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

“I now do what other people only dream. I make art until someone dies. See? I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”
– The Joker (Jack Nicholson), in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), to be reviewed here this weekend.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) 
Mea culpa.
Although universally and no doubt rightly considered a literary classic, Lewis Carroll’s surreal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has always given me a headache. 
No doubt this is a tremendous failing of imagination on my part, but I’ll readily own it.  I simply don’t have much affinity for Carroll’s admittedly colorful universe of literary nonsense: a cosmos of neologisms, riddles, word-play, mathematical concepts, and nonce words.  Alice’s universe (also featured in Through the Looking Glass [1871]) is deliberately not of the fantasy genre because there is little or no internal logic to it, and if you know anything about me from reading this blog, I hope it’s that I’m a big proponent of internal logic in works of art.   
In fact, my opinion of Carroll’s mythos conforms well to Alice’s description of the poem Jabberwocky:
It’s pretty, but rather hard to understand.
Again, I realize it’s my own personal failing that I’m writing about here, but when I last read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (admittedly well over a decade ago…) I also found it vaguely sinister, and more than that, somewhat unsavory in its sadistic qualities  The story essentially involves a girl who is denied — again and again — understanding of Wonderland, and also put through some savage physical trials and tribulations. 
Additionally, from my perspective, the various adventures in Wonderland (from the Mad Tea Party to the Queen’s croquet game) appears to lack legitimate thematic connection beyond Carroll’s focus on animals from natural history, mathematical concepts, and nonsense.  The tale is interesting as a surreal, dream experience, but not as a coherent narrative.  The threads don’t all tie together, in other words.
In exposing my personal opinion of Alice in Wonderland, I reveal — as I’ve already stated — the nature of my own limitations as a thinker or philosopher, I suppose.  There you have it.  But it’s crucial you understand my perspective as I write about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film of 2010. 
Because, in many significant ways, I suspect Tim Burton may hold the same opinion of Carroll’s “classic” that I do.  In fact, he has taken into consideration all my reservations about the material and created a work of art that rebuts them.  In doing so, however, Burton certainly “re-imagines” the Alice universe rather dramatically.  If you’re a big admirer of Carroll’s written words and world, I imagine you might easily and no doubt accurately find Burton’s approach grating, and a poor creative decision. 
So right off the bat, let me state that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not for the purists, or for those who appreciate Carroll’s work and consider it sacrosanct. 
If, on the other hand, you’re open to seeing a film that psychologically interprets Alice’s adventure in Wonderland, you may find there’s a much to appreciate here.
Outside of considerations about the source material, I admired the film as a visually enthralling (and dazzling) fantasy piece, and also as an exception to the Hollywood rule about young women acting as heroes.  Here, the lead female character is not just the girlfriend to the male hero (Twilight, j’accuse), the sidekick to the hero (Harry Potter), nor the object to be rescued (James Bond), but the central figure and hero in her own adventure.  Alice slays the dragon — or the Jabberwocky — herself; she doesn’t need St. George to contextualize her role. 
Alice’s heroism may sound like a small element, but consider for a moment how few modern fantasy or adventure films actually position a female as savior/messiah/”The One”/defeater of evil.  In contemplating that idea,  you’ll gain a small sense of how special and unique this film truly is.  Accordingly, I would unequivocally recommend the film to all children, but especially to girls.  Tim Burton has transformed Alice from a girl who is acted upon — shrunken and grown at random by quasi-malevolent forces out of her control — to a girl who takes responsibility for her choices and makes her own destiny in the world.
Although occasionally a little meandering, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland emerges as a breathtaking re-invention of a literary classic, and one I highly recommend if any of my thoughts above resonate with you.
“Why is it you’re always too small or too tall?”
Nineteen year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) attends a garden party at the home of a rich businessman only to learn that it is actually her engagement party, and that she is to be married off to the odious Hamish (Leo Bill), a man with digestive problems. 
As Hamish escorts her to a gazebo to ask Alice’s hand in marriage, hundreds of party-goers gather to celebrate.
Needing a moment to compose herself, Alice runs off alone.  She spies a white rabbit descend down a rabbit hole, and follows it, falling it into “Underland.” 
There, Alice experiences the powerful sense that she has been there before, as a child.  She meets many “friends” she seems to remember, including a blue caterpillar, Absalom (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and the twins, Tweedledee and Tweedle Dum (Matt Lucas). 
Soon, Alice also runs into her old friend, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who tells her that Underland is experiencing difficult times.  The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has seized control of the land from her kind sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway…in a role crying out for Lisa Marie).  Worse, the Red Queen ruthlessly defends her authority with her beastly champion, the monstrous Jabberwocky.
The Mad Hatter informs Alice that it is her destiny to acquire the “vorpal sword” and destroy the Jabberwocky, thus restoring the White Queen to the throne and balance to Underland.  Alice rejects this destiny again and again, but when the Mad Hatter is captured by the forces of the Red Queen, led by Stayne (Crispin Glover), she realizes she must act meaningfully to save her dear friend…
“Have you lost your senses? This picture is impossible.”
Alice in Wonderland is another Tim Burton film focused on a misfit or an outsider. In this case, that fiure is Alice, who dreams of breaking convention and doesn’t fit into “proper” English society.  
Let’s talk about that proper 19th century society for a moment.  There, women were treated as little more than slaves.  If single, women were met with disdain and denigration.  Furthermore, women could not hold down jobs, either, and were forbidden from attending university or bettering themselves through a significant education.  A woman’s only “meaningful” destiny at this time was to marry and have children, and see her “wealth” and assets transferred to the ownership of a man to spend as he saw fit.
This is the system, the “proper” world that Alice has trouble accepting in the film.
Why is it you’re always too small or too tall?” The Mad Hatter asks Alice at one point in the film, revealing her status as an outsider who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.  She seems “too big” for the role of a woman in 19th century England, and yet too (physically) small and fragile to be a dragonslayer in Underland.   
Early in the film, Alice also asks the question “who’s to say what’s proper?”, a question which reveals how she deeply chafes under society’s rules.  Importantly, following her adventure in Underland, Alice is ready to leave “proper” society behind and set out on an adventure to faraway China.  In other words, she is determined to make her place in the world on her own, without people telling her what to do, or whom she should marry.  The film’s dialogue makes the question of Alice’s journey an explicit one: should she follow a well-trodden path, or diverge from that path and make her own road?
Considering this important aspect of the tale, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a coming-of-age, hero’s journey/passage type story, and it’s illuminating to see how Burton creates the story of one girl’s journey from diffident adolescence to confident maturity.  Interestingly, he adopts the Wizard of Oz conceit that “real” life boasts a mirror in the “other” (fantasy) life.  In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as you’ll recall, the shape of Dorothy’s life in Kansas was mirrored in her dream of Oz.   Hunk, Zeke and Hickory became the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and The Tin Man, respectively, and Miss Gulch became the Wicked Witch. 
Although the mirror aspect of Alice in Wonderland (a nice allusion to Through the Looking Glass) isn’t quite that on-the-nose, aspects of Alice’s life do find expression in Underland, a land, to be sure, representing her subconscious mind.  In real life, Alice walks through the garden of Hamish’s parents, and refers to painting white roses red while in the company of her would-be-mother-in-law.  This discussion positions the draconian mother-in-law as the “Red Queen” of Alice’s reality.   Also, two girls in Hamish’s family are shallow, superficial twits, and their presence is echoed in Underland by that of the dim-bulbs Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Similarly, when the White Queen gathers her troops to ask for a volunteer champion to defeat the Jabberwocky, Burton determinedly re-stages, with minimal variation, the moment from early in the film when Hamish gathers onlookers at the gazebo to propose marriage to Alice. 
In both instances, Alice must make a fateful decision.  The first time — in real life — she runs away to her subconscious, to Underland.  Then, in Underland, she finally steps up to become a champion.  And then, after defeating the Jabberwocky, she returns to the Gazebo and has the strength of mind and personality to refuse Hamish’s proposal.  These three scenes — of identical staging — are the crux of the film, for they ask us what Alice is made of.  Has she lost her “muchness” or, in the act of exploring her subconscious (Underland), does she restore her “muchness?”  The film suggests that Alice can only be victorious when, in Absalom’s words, she decides “which” Alice she is: the one who makers her own path, or the one who blindly follows the path of others.
In the same vein, the villainous Jabberwocky — the champion of the Red Queen — represents the status quo in Alice’s subconscious.  If Alice can’t destroy the beast, the Red Queen stays on the throne…and nothing changes. 
If Alice is victorious, however, Alice will possess the freedom (because of the transformatiional power of the Jabberwocky’s blood) to return to her “real” life as an empowered champion. Of course, this is what occurs.
Alice’s character arc in Burton’s film is quite an empowering one.  Alice need not fit in, the film states, but merely decide her own path, and that’s just about the best message you could possibly showcase in a fantasy during our Twilight/Kardashian age.  Alice need not be defined by who she is with romantically, or by family name, or by wealth (or paucity of wealth).  I love the film’s message and it isn’t particularly heavy-handed, which is nice.  Alice in Wonderland doesn’t browbeat with you the “point,” which is a tremendous gift in a world where most contemporary films lack subtext.
Mia Wasikowska is a revelation in the film, a major young talent.  She is one of those luminous, somewhat unconventional-looking actresses who grows more beautiful, more interesting, more graceful and more compelling the longer you watch her.  She holds the screen.  Wasikowska successfully imbues this Alice with a fetching intelligence and sense of vulnerability, and such qualities are important, because Alice is our anchor; the person from whose mind Underland is drawn.  Fortunately, it’s very possible to believe that this Alice could create such a fertile realm of the imagination.
You also won’t be surprised to learn that the visuals in the film are ravishing.  This film boasts amazing sights not easily forgotten.  These include a post-apocalyptic Underland under the rule of the vicious Red Queen, and an army of soldiers falling in battle — literally — like a deck of cards. 
Alice’s first, dizzying descent down the rabbit hole is also noteworthy.  I can’t imagine how amazing the film looked in its original 3D presentation, but on high-definition blu-ray Alice in Wonderland remains an absolute stunner.
Again, this isn’t Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s more like a sequel that makes logical, behavioral sense of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.   Tim Burton has added a psychological dimension to the tale, showcasing a world not in which a young girl is acted upon (and tortured…) by strange, inscrutable creatures, but in which that world is a manifestation of the girl’s desire to find her own place in the world. 
It’s silly to argue that a movie is “better” than a work of literature, I realize.  But Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland re-imagines the world of Lewis Carroll in an empowering, visually-stunning fashion.  In doing so, it far exceeeded my expectations of what what the tenth or so cinematic adaptation of Carroll’s classic work could achieve.
As the Mad Hatter might say, this one really– quite unexpectedly — turned out to be my cup of tea.
Next Week: Batman (1989)!

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

“Wasn’t that just magnificent? I was worried it was getting a little dodgy in the middle part, but then that finale…wow!

– Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Since it was published in America in 1964, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) has become a classic of children’s literature.  The book is still assigned reading in many middle school and high school curricula and has spawned two film adaptations, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton’s 2005 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become a generational touchstone for kids raised in the 1970s (myself included), the recent Tim Burton adaptation is, surprisingly, far more faithful to the Roald Dahl novel in terms of mood, manner, and visualization.  As is the case in the Dahl book, the 2005 film deftly critiques both capitalist society — which creates a vast gulf between the economic well-being of Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket — and the mores of contemporary child-rearing. 
On the second conceptual front, the Tim Burton movie has updated many of Dahl’s satirical flourishes for 21st century consumption, turning Mike Teavee into a video game-a-holic and Violet Beauregard into a pre-adolescent over-achiever.  But despite such minor updates, the intent of both works remains to hold up a mirror to society at large and address something seemingly flawed in the prevailing social structure.  Naturally, both book and movie accomplish this task in entertaining fashion, as a seemingly “harmless” fairy tale meant for kids. 
Like Dahl, Burton is an expert in the creation of fantastic and grotesque worlds, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provides him ample opportunity to showcase his stellar, off-beat imagination.  Dahl’s slapstick humor, and exaggerated settings — namely an impossibly bizarre factory interior — thus find new life in Burton’s audacious visualizations, which critic Peter Bradshaw accurately described as conveying  a retro Day-Glo 1960s” vibe.

Furthermore, Burton’s fascinating addition of a Willy Wonka back-story represents the director’s stylistic personalization or interpretation of the source material, and functions in some sense, even, as an improvement over the novel’s story.  In particular,  Burton gives Willy “father” issues, and this aspect of the movie plays perfectly into the social criticism of modern-day parenting underlining the entire affair.

It’s easy to gaze at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and see only a colorful kiddie flick, a silly, inconsequential fantasy, but in this entertaining film, Burton has retained so much of what made Dahl’s work unique, and, in fact, added something to the experience.  He’s done so by co-opting the literary imagery of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and even the choreographic style of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976).   In toto, the film is another remarkable triumph for the director, and I must admit, I wasn’t expecting the film to be so damned good.

As critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Salon: ““Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” couldn’t have emerged from anywhere but the dark, chambered nautilus of Burton’s imagination — in its best sections, it’s magically deranged in a way no other filmmaker could even come close to pulling off.” 

Magically deranged.  That about says it all.

“You can’t run a chocolate factory with a family hanging over you like an old, dead goose.”

In Charlie The Chocolate Factory, eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) has distributed five golden tickets to visit his factory in the unusual and delicious Wonka candy bars.   This act sets off a world-wide search for the five elusive tickets.

The first ticket is found by an obese glutton, Augustus Gloop (Philip Weigratz).  The second is “procured” by a millionaire-industrialist for his indulged daughter, Veruca Salt (Julia Winter).  The third ticket is found by a gum-chewing over-achiever, Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb) and the fourth by a smart-aleck video-game aficionado, Mike Teavee (Adam Godley).

Rather unexpectedly, the final ticket falls into the hands of the modest and kind Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore), a boy who lives in poverty in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town with his parents and grandparents.  At first, Charlie decides to sell the ticket to pay for food because his father has recently lost his job, but Charlie’s grandpa, Joe (David Kelly) convinces him he should keep it.

Together, Grandpa Joe and Charlie meet Willy Wonka at the factory, and tour the various rooms of his amazing candy factory.  These include The Chocolate Room, the Inventing Room, the Nut Room, and the TV Room. 

In each room, one of the young visitors falls prey to a strange industrial accident. Augustus Gloop is sucked up into a giant chocolate pipe (or straw?).  Violet is turned into a giant blueberry after sampling Wonka’s experimental three-course-meal-chewing gum, Veruca is tossed down a garbage chute in the Nut Room, and Mike Teavee is sucked into a television…then shrunken down to size by the experience.  In all instances, Wonka’s bizarre workers, the Oompa-Loompas (Deep Roy) sing songs about the fallen children.

In the end, Charlie is the only child to remain standing on the entire tour, and Wonka reveals he would like him to be his heir.  The only catch: Charlie must do it alone; without the family who helped get him here…

“Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”

Candy doesn’t need to have a point, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory certainly makes a few.

In his artistic selections, Burton enhances the novel’s social critique of runaway, out-of-control capitalism. 

In particular, Burton opens the film with a truly Dickension flourish by showcasing a wintry, industrial city where a vast gulf exists between the wealthy and the poor.  Charlie lives in little more than a hovel, and watches as his father loses his job in the local toothpaste factory.  The Wonka factory dominates the landscape, both a foreboding and mysterious place.

A proponent of social reform himself, Charles Dickens’ satires often showcased the hardships of the working class in London, and pointed out the anti-human and inhumane nature of big industry during his time.  Like Dahl, Dickens is well-known for his black humor and colorfully-named characters, as well. What Burton achieves here so brilliantly is the fanciful merging of the two artists.  He enhances Dahl’s words with imagery of poverty, industry and inequality right out of Oliver Twist.  Of course, there’s also a modern spin on the idea of runaway industry since automation at the factory is the thing that puts both Mr. Bucket and Grandpa Joe out of work.  This aspect of the film certainly speaks to our national context today, in the era of the one percenters and the 99ers.

Meanwhile, Willy Wonka leads the indulged life of, well, Michael Jackson in Neverland.  The idea that both the late King of Pop and Wonka seem to share in common is that neither one was afforded a happy childhood.  But in adulthood, they possess the will and the wealth to rectify that mistake; to recreate the childhood they wished they had. To indulge themselves, in other words.  Such wealth puts Wonka in a different social class from Charlie, who has no time to focus on his childhood, only the vicissitudes of day-to-day survival: a hole in the roof, and cabbage soup again for dinner.  Wonka is a lonely figure — a Burton outsider and misfit — but he is rich enough to build a world around him; one that answers only to his demands and desires.  Charlie can’t do that. 

Additionally, Wonka has surrounded himself with the Oompa Loompas, small “men” who all look identical to one another, and toil for cocoa beans, rather than for a living wage.  Wonka brought them back from the “wild,” and this facet of the story is certainly an allegory for the First World’s colonial exploitation of the Third.  It’s also notable that the Oompa Loompas all “look alike” and aren’t exactly treated as individual people. 

Significantly, they dance in the geometric, kaleidoscopic, uniform fashion favored by Busby Berkeley in his Depression-Era films, and that’s important too.  The Oompa Loompas act (and dance) as “one” and don’t concern themselves with personal wealth: they are a collective. 

Again, it’s important to recall that Berkeley made his splash in Depression Age films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and that his choreography was said to eschew failed American “individualism” (capitalism?) in favor of the concerns of “the collective.”  In other words, the Chorus Girls dancing in a Berkeley musical number were all part of a larger pattern or ideal, unimportant alone but powerful as a network or “whole.”  The Oompa Loompas are presented in that very fashion here, and hence as an antidote or remedy to the overt, out-of-control capitalism we see described in the film, embodied by acts of corporate espionage and sabotage. 

If you couple the Dickensian landscapes (incessant snowfall, extreme poverty, smoke-spewing factories) with the Busby Berkeley musical flouishes (championing the collective nature of collaboration in Wonka’s factory), with Dahl’s tale of a “good” boy who inherits the Factory — the means of production — what you start to see emerge on-screen is a tale depicting the failure of capitalism and the importance of “community.”  For what does Charlie, in the end bring to Willy Wonka — the iconoclastic loner — but an acceptance and understanding of family; the root “community” of human society and civilization?

Even the film’s narration describes Charlie in terms which  heighten the social critique against out-of-control capitalism.  The narrator suggests:
This is a story of an ordinary little boy named Charlie Bucket. He was not faster, or stronger, or more clever than other children. His family was not rich or powerful or well-connected; in fact, they barely had enough to eat.” 
What are Charlie’s prized characteristics?  Well, he’s loyal to his family, he shares with them his resources (his candy bar and his love…), and he believes that when he succeeds, they all succeed.  Given this description, in conjunction with the trenchant visuals, it’s not a stretch to view the film as a rebuke of western culture’s long-standing ideals and myths surrounding rugged individualism and boot-strap-ism (or “entrepreneurship.”)  
Indeed, this boy succeeds not by being the smartest, fastest or strongest, or by being the son of a rich man, but by simply being decent and responsible to those around him; by having a sense of himself in relation to others. 
Powerfully, Burton’s film also notes the extreme unfairness of  out-of-control capitalism, namey that it does not reward those who do good, but rather those who already possess resources.  “The kids who are going to find the golden tickets are the ones who can afford to buy candy bars every day,” says Grandpa Joe. “Our Charlie gets only one a year. He doesn’t have a chance.”   That’s the problem: the deck is stacked against those without by power by those who already possess it.

Outside the withering critique of capitalism, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a cautionary tale for parents.  Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are negative examples to learn from.  They reveal to audiences what happens when parents fail in their sacred duty to raise decent human beings.  Gloop is a glutton, Salt an indulged brat, Violet an empty-headed “winner” who has to be the best at everything she does, and Teavee an emotionally disconnected know-it-all.   And although the film punishes the children for their offenses, it does not view them as the real bad guys, as the Oompa Loompa song for Veruca clearly points out:

“Who went and spoiled her / Who indeed? Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones – now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad.”

What we see here is a kind of “sins of the father” dynamic.  The parents are the ones at fault for raising monsters, and yet it is the children who ultimately suffer for actually being monsters.  This is a dynamic that, as the father of an only child, I grapple with just about every day.  How much indulgence is too much indulgence, in terms of child rearing?  Where’s the line between a happy child and a spoiled one?  Cross that line, and the child…and the world suffer. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both the source novel and the film — deal with the very real idea that parents can all too easily transform their children into brats.  They can do it by obsessing on winning (a variation of competing, which goes back to the capitalism angle); by turning them over to the tender lessons of commercial television, or by indulging their every appetite, no holds barred.   I confess, this is the very reason why the Dahl book has always appealed to me on such a gut level: the idea that kids, if we aren’t careful, are little Frankenstein Monsters that we make and then set loose into the world.

The film adaptation by Burton goes the extra and perhaps even genius step, of suggesting that Willy Wonka is one of these Frankenstein Monsters all gorwn up.  His father, a cruel dentist played by Christopher Lee, turned him into what he is: a snide, family-hating Michael Jackson/Howard Hughes-like recluse; someone who can’t meaningfully connect to other human beings.  Optimistically, the film’s conclusion suggests that Wonka will be “adopted” by (and thus re-parented) by Charlie’s humble and nurturing family, and that this particular monster can be un-made.

Some critics have suggested there’s something a bit sadistic about both the book and the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I don’t disagree, but sometimes a little so-called “sadism” is good for the soul.  It’s good to know that the wicked and the corrupt and the gluttonous and the entitled eventually get punished for their misdeeds, and that occasionally — just occasionally — someone of stout heart and gentle tendencies can win out over the wealthy, the connected, the loud, and the powerful.

As I wrote above, Burton’s 2005 film — filling in the gap in Wonka’s backstory — actually improves the nature of Dahl’s story.  It reveals to us that Wonka is human and flawed, and even a bit monstrous too.  He’s not a perfect creature standing in judgment of “bad” children here, but rather an imperfect, flawed being himself.  I like that interpretation, because it suggests that a child wounded will, as an adult, wound others.  And it also suggests that it’s never too late to care about someone, and help them be better.    

Wonka doesn’t get away with being a monster in this version of the classic Dahl tale, and I like that. It defuses the “sadistic” label the book has acquired over the years.

People who live in glass elevators, after all, shouldn’t throw stones…

Next Weekend: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

“There’s plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there’s only five of them in the whole world, and that’s all there’s ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
(to be reviewed here tomorrow) 

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Big Fish (2003)

“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”

Big Fish (2003)
Tell me, which alternative  fosters a better understanding of your life experience: the bare bones truth, or an embellished, “flavored” version of the truth that contextualizes you life as a great story, one with heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a beginning…and inevitable end? 
Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasy masterpiece, Big Fish beautifully and emotionally makes the case for the latter option. 

In real life, we’re each of us but a little fish (only 1 out of 7 billion…) swimming about in a global sea. But in our imaginations — and in our private family circles — we’re all big fish: colorful personalities who loom large in the stories of our sons and daughters, and our Moms and Dads.  In our private worlds, we’re important, nay the most important figures.

The first shots and compositions of Big Fish take the viewer down into the sun-drenched water of a fresh-water river as a big fish swims alone there, and this inaugural visual perfectly captures the movie’s most important conceit: the idea that we all make ourselves and our lives out to be “big.”

Sometimes we even do so at the expense of those we love, who risk becoming mere “context” in another person’s epic poem. 

The big fish swims alone, after all…

Of all Tim Burton’s films, I readily confess that I find Big Fish the most emotional.  Maybe because it’s a story of fathers and sons learning to understand one another.  Perhaps because it concerns the inevitability of death, and the passing of the generations (as well as the storyteller torch). 

Regardless, I do know that this film hits me on a very personal, very intimate  level every time I see it.  I had an important person in my life until about a year ago (2010) who was, like the movie’s Ed Bloom, a masterful and ridiculous storyteller.  He was a man who had (so he claimed…) met and conversed with Colin Powell and Albert Einstein, and who was biologically related both to General Robert E. Lee and Katie Couric.  He absolutely never met a fish story he didn’t like.  The man could put you on with the straightest of straight faces, and in some moments, could even devise for you what your life story should be.

This larger-than-life figure spoke in the most idiosyncratic and singular manner I’ve ever known,  replete with lots of extremely colorful metaphors, and he passed away following the sudden onset of a terminal illness.  And yet — in large part because of his incomparable manner of expressing himself and telling his stories — he remains an everyday voice in my head.  Today, he’s an indelible fixture there, and sometimes, almost against my will, I still hear his unique voice, and his flamboyant way of communicating.  His vocabulary alone — his bizarre lexicon — seems often to be on the tip of my tongue.  I don’t always know why.

Now, I don’t want to romanticize this man and turn him into a saint, because that description does no one any good.   We’re all but human beings, with flaws and foibles.  But there was an element in this man — as there is in Big Fish’s Ed Bloom — that raises questions; that fascinates.  He turned his stories into great adventures, all while leaving the real man, the truth itself, opaque.  His crazy stories and jokes cloaked…what precisely

So, in one sense, I knew this man and his unique mode of expression deeply for over twenty years, and yet in another very basic sense, I didn’t know the real man at all. 

At least not until I understood the seemingly impossible: that the stories, jokes, and tall tales were the real man.  They were part and parcel of his individual and mental gestalt, and you couldn’t separate him from those tall tales.

I don’t usually write here about how films affect me personally.   I generally don’t like that approach in film criticism, preferring to rely instead on examinations of compositions and leitmotifs, and so on.  And yet I can’t honestly deny that Big Fish hits me in a close place.  It seems so true to my own personal experience that I suppose I have a hard time separating Will Bloom’s story from my own experience.  What I can declare with conviction is that Big Fish is the most heartfelt and touching of Burton’s works.  Perhaps not the best (a title I reserve for Ed Wood or perhaps Edward Scissorhands), but certainly the most emotional.
As Clint Morris wrote of the film in Film Threat: “It takes those oddities and twists that many don’t usually go for if they’re not a big fan of the director and interweaves them into a tale that’s so enriching, so heartwarming, so funny, so touching and so breathtaking, you’ll wonder why the king of wackiness didn’t branch out sooner.”  And Peter Travers, writing for Rolling Stone, insightfully noted that Burton had finally hooked the one that got away, in the process deepening his “visionary talent.” 

I agree with both those conclusions.  If I had to select one Tim Burton film for people who generally don’t like Tim Burton films, it would be Big Fish.

“It doesn’t always make sense and most it never happened…”

Big Fish is the story of Ed and Will Bloom, estranged father and son.  Ever since he was a little boy, Will has heard his father tell crazy stories about witches, giants, werewolves, Siamese twins, and mysterious ghost towns. 

At first, Will believed the stories were wondrous and magical, but over the years he began to wish that his father would drop the fairy tales and just start relating to him as a real person.

Now, as an adult, Will learns that his father is on his death bed.  He asks his father to tell him one true thing before he dies, but his father insists that his stories are the “truth” about his life.  “I’ve been nothin’ but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that it’s your failin’, not mine,” he tells his son.   Will finds this hard to accept, especially as he prepares to become a father himself for the first time. 
After Ed relates his life story to Will’s wife, his health declines further.  On the verge of dying, Ed asks Will — his only son – to tell him how his story ends.  Will complies, and in doing so, gains a new insight into the man who raised him, as well as the importance of storytelling in all our lives.

“Dying is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”

In some senses, Big Fish is very much about a blowhard, as Roger Ebert suggested in his review of the film.  It’s uncharitable, but true. Ed may have led a big life, but he also has a big mouth.

In fact, Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) has so transformed his life into a series of weird and wonderful stories that his grown son, Will (Billy Crudup) isn’t sure he even knows his father.  That’s a terrible thing.

And yet the movie ultimately sides with old Ed.  He isn’t viewed with harshness by Burton.  Instead — in the passing of the generations — the movie reminds us that each storyteller will have his day.  Ed has had his day, and now Will’s day looms.  At the movie’s end, it is Will who tells the “end” of Ed’s story, and who recounts for his son a lifetime of adventures.  It’s important too, that Ed is never portrayed as a liar.  Instead, as his funeral reveals, he is just a serial exaggerator: one with a foot in fact, and another in colorful fiction.  By Ed’s reckoning, Will tells stories with “all the facts, none of the flavor,” and that’s just not his way.

Some reviewers have been hard on Big Fish, noting that it never really considers the son’s point of view or feelings.

There may be some truth to this perspective, but in the final analysis, Big Fish does right by both characters.

We follow Ed from birth to childhood illness, from his first love to, ultimately, his death. In Ed’s life story, we readily detect his spring and summer (his youth), and even his autumn and winter (his old age and demise). 

Notably, Burton makes certain that the natural landscape echoes each one of these spans.  As a young man, for instance, Ed sees Spectre as a beautiful, idyllic town, well-painted and carpeted in lush green grass.  As a middle-aged man, however, Ed returns to the town and finds it paved over, browning, and in a state of decay.  You can’t go home again.

Similarly, when Ed courts the love of his life, their romantic love is expressed in the vibrant yellow of endless daffodils.  As death approaches, such blooming (and remember his name is Ed Bloom…) has ended, and all the trees are stark and naked, bereft of leaves.  Winter has come for Ed at last.

Will certainly represents an important chapter in Ed’s life, but in a sense, his “part” of the story only really becomes important in the closing chapters.  Ed can’t write his final sentences himself.  That’s why he needs his boy.  Ironically, it is to contextualize his life, not vice-versa as Will initially feared.  And really, that’s always the job of those left to carry on after losing a parent: to put the actions and span of the dead into some kind of meaningful order.

As it turns out, Ed’s strange stories become important to Will.  They represent the old man’s legacy and gift, a colorful way of looking at the world and remembering Dad.   Ed wanted Will to listen to his stories for a reason, and not merely to entertain him.  Someday, the boy would need to know the details so he could take ownership of Ed’s story and continue it for the next generation.  Again, this is as much about Will as it is about Ed.

In life, we are all part of this cycle.  We all heirs to a story, caretakers of that story, and then givers of the story — after we’ve had it and protected it for a lifetime.  Big Fish gets at this idea in a more beautiful and imaginative fashion than just about any movie I’ve seen.  The imagery is enormously affecting, particularly as the strong, healthy Will picks up his infirm, dying father and lifts him into the air — as if carrying him like a baby — for one last adventure, one final tall tale.

There’s something so innocent and beautiful about this image.  The boy who was once held by his father’s strong arms now lifts up his sick dad — negating the realities of gravity — and cares for him as he was once cared for.  This image gets me every time: the son becomes the father; the father the son.  The roles reverse, and time marches on.

Big Fish offers other narrative and visual glories as well.  I love the use to which director Burton puts Helena Bonham Carter here, essentially making her every “other” woman figure in Bloom’s life.  She is both a terrifying (if friendly…) witch and a young, innocent girl, all grown up. 
And I also appreciate another powerful image: one of a fork in the road that seems to literalize the Robert Frost poem about the road taken and the road not taken. Again, this fits in well with the story’s meditation on the seasons of life, and the choices we make.  Our destiny is sometimes as simple as deciding which path to follow.

Big Fish is filled with incredibly whimsy and magic, and yet, at the same time, the film seems to truly capture something essential about our mortality, and the mortality of those we love.  We can view tall tales as merely “amusing lies” from someone we love, or as the seeds of immortality itself, a renewable source of energy that we can share with our children and our grandchildren. 

I wrote above about the man in my life who was a lot like Ed Bloom, right down to his southern heritage  He saw Big Fish back in 2004 and loved it.  He especially loved that Bloom’s stories were ultimately validated…that there was a degree of truth in his musings about giants and witches and werewolves, and so on.  I get that now.    In understanding our own lives, the stories we tell do become true to us, at least after a fashion.

It may be “impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth,” but when you meet a storyteller of such caliber, you never forget his words…or his life.  It doesn’t always make sense and “most of it never happened… but that’s what kind of story this is.” 

I’m glad that Burton decided to tell it.  But damn…it makes me weep. It makes me want to hold my son.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of Mars Attacks! (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in 1999 with the triumphant Sleepy Hollow, a dark fairy tale powered by the pervasive millennial angst of the era. 

Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future.  Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism?  Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?

Widely recognized as an example of “gorgeous filmmaking,” (Rolling Stone), Sleepy Hollow was lauded upon release for its lush production values and colorful, autumnal imagery.  Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, for instance, aptly termed the film a “visual seduction.”
That’s an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film’s persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history.  It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegaic about the world it creates: the last spell  perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence
As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film’s nature.  Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand.   As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting — and wonderful — moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood.
The joke is not only an example of inside baseball, so-to-speak, but an indicator that Burton has fashioned his entire 1999 film as an homage to the output of Hammer. As Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin write in Flickipedia, the director “continues his unique, idiosyncratic, and very personal career project: to re-experience and revivify the toy chest of pop-culture effluvia that sustained him – and many of us – through our ‘Nam era childhoods.” (Chicago Review Press, 2007, page 21.) 
Or, as Wesley Morris wrote in The San Francisco Examiner: “what Burton does perhaps better than even Steven Spielberg: transport you to a nook in your childhood, be it around a summer campfire or smack in front of a TV set on a Saturday afternoon.”
In the visual language of a Hammer Studios film then, the impressive Sleepy Hollow asks its audience to contemplate the nature of life on Heaven and Earth.  Is science the key to understanding it?  Or is there room, yet, for magic in this world?  In scenes both lyrical and poetic (particularly those involving Lisa Marie as Ichabod’s mother), Burton’s Sleepy Hollow seeks the answer.

Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton’s earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top “tier” films in the director’s canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.

“It is truth, but truth is not always appearance.”

The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken). 

When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci).  The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane’s mother (Marie) was also witch.

As the mystery of Sleepy Hollow deepens, Crane wonders if someone is summoning a dark, malevolent spirit for monetary gain, and if so, who it could be.  He realizes that to learn that answer, Crane must not depend on science alone, but open himself to the possibilities suggested by his mother; the possibilities of magic.

“The millennium is almost upon us…”

Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s.
Not only does this film feature familiar horror actors from the Hammer stable, including Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, it is also, like the works of that studio, largely set-bound, and it embodies a similar, heavy sense of Gothic romanticism.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” (“Headless in Sleepy Hollow,” November 1999, page 38.)

Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film’s canvas: “Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, “Sleepy Hollow” creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds.”   Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)
Crane has put his faith in technology and reason, and believes that “to detect the guilty” science is the best tool.   He disdains the fact that he seems to be the only one “who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques.”
That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysicism) is the real thematic terrain of the film.

Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: “Here’s Your Head, What’s Your Hurry?” December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town.   The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod’s way will dominate the human race.  Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in “modern” New York…a realm of science.

Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does– at least partially —  seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.

Though whip smart, knowledgeable and clever, Ichabod suppresses his own “natural gift,” the one handed down to him by his mother: his capacity for belief in something greater than the resources and wonders of man’s mind. In this sense, one might gaze at Sleepy Hollow as a tale of one man’s spiritual, even religious, awakening. Crane comes to see that he can’t depend on science alone, but also must understand the rules of magic; on his instinctive sense of wonder. 
And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie’s dialogue about nature vs. supernature.  The  Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast.  Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane.  The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges.  His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words  Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.
Uniquely, Ichabod’s journey may also be a reflection of how cinema (particular the horror cinema) had grown cold and clinical in the 1990s.  This was the era of 1,001 police procedural horrors, roughly (The Silence of the Lambs, Jennifer 8, Se7en, Kiss the Girls, Resurrection, Copycat, The Bone Collector, etc.) and such films reduced the great act of “monster”-hunting to a science, a forensic science. 
Ichabod is clearly in the mold of such CSI-styled investigators (nay a progenitor of their mold…) and yet in the end it is not forensics that saves the day in Sleepy Hollow…it is the investigator’s natural gift, his ability to countenance magic.  One might easily see this conceit as Burton’s embedded critique of the increasingly stale take on horror at the turn of the millennium.  With its beautiful fairy tale forests and deliberate Hammer Studio artifice, Sleepy Hollow seems a deliberate and almost elegeic throwback to an era of imagination and theatricality instead of gritty psychological realism.
At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually “bewitched by reason,” and that comment perfectly captures the film’s questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation.  And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film…undeniably one of his finest.
Next Week: Big Fish.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mars Attacks! (1996)

I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton.  After all, here he was – making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.

Something about that particular comment struck a chord with me at the time (though I don’t remember the reviewer…). And yet the uncharitable remark doesn’t tell the entire story of this 1996 Burton film, either.

Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top,  and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! — before the Martians arrive — are pretty dire.  It’s a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j’accuse).  The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose.  The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little.  It just dies on-screen.

Yet despite such apparent flaws, Mars Attacks! works effectively as a diabolical subversion of the Hollywood blockbuster format (see: Independence Day [1996]), and simultaneously as a commentary on American political life, circa 1996. Specifically, the alien Martians as depicted by Burton are a kind of joyful physical representation of Loki or Chaos.  They happily rip to shreds both the pillars of contemporary American political thinking (and PC thinking, specifically…) and the conventional pillars of Hollywood decorum. 
Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet…) you must destroy that village (or planet).  Everything from the Martian’s bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs. 

For instance, these alien creatures go (far…) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility.  And that’s what’s so funny. 

The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond  unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere.  And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they’re just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.

This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders.  Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.

As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed.  Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat.  And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton’s trademark, brilliant visual invention.  I also love how the picture looks, for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.

In the end, I must respectfully refuse to dismiss outright any film that ends with crooner Tom Jones breaking into a rendition of “It’s Not Unusual” (accompanied by alighting birds…) as a re-assertion of order and nature, I suppose.   This just isn’t something you see every day, especially coming from mainstream, conformist Tinsel Town.

Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don’t work.

“Why destroy when you can create?”
Mars Attacks! is based on Topps’ popular trading card line from 1962, a perennial collector’s item which featured some fifty colorful cards depicting Earth’s invasion by nefarious, big-brained Martians. 
The Topps cards were a source of major controversy in their time for depicting Martians capturing and torturing human females. Much of the Mars Attack imagery also revealed brave American servicemen being burned alive (“Saucers Blast Our Jets”), frozen to death (“The Frost Ray”), bloodied, and otherwise abused by the sadistic Martians.
In Tim Burton’s version of Mars Attacks! the imagery is arguably just as violent, but played in a much lighter vein. 
As the film’s story commences, the world is taken by surprise when Martians land on Earth and prove not to be good-will ambassadors, but a wholly malevolent and destructive force. 
Although the President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson) again and again attempts to forge a peace with the alien invaders over the objections of his top General, Decker (Rod Steiger), the Martians persist in their all-out war on humanity. 
Finally, it is up to a shy teenage boy in Kansas, Richie (Lukas Haas), to locate the unlikely key to destroying the aliens: his grandmother’s Slim Whitman records!  Once broadcast across the air-waves, the strange Slim Whitman performances pulp Martian brains and end the invasion of Earth once and for all.
If one bears any familiarity with the Mars Attacks card set, the first significant thing to note about the Burton film is that the handsomely-mounted production goes to great lengths to accurately capture the pulpy, 1950s/early-1960s vibe of the set.  It does so by visually aping a few of the more notable, specific cards. 
Cards such as “Burning Cattle,” (pictured above)  “The Shrink Ray” and “Robot Terror” are all staged directly as action sequences in the film.  “Burning Cattle” actually opens the film, in a memorable scene set in Lockjaw, Kentucky). 

Meanwhile, another Topps card “Panic in Parliament” seems to be the direct inspiration for the Martian attack on both houses of Congress seen in the film.
Likewise, the card “Burning Flesh” reveals the full (disgusting) impact of advanced Martian weaponry on the human body; a perspective which is repeated (on Jack Black) in the film during the Martians’ first landing in Nevada. 
Some of the more spectacular and bizarre card imagery is left deliberately unvetted (“Saucers blast our jets,” “Terror in Times Square,”) and the film also wisely avoids staging several Topps cards which shifted the focus from the Martian invaders to giant, overgrown hazards to mankind’s domination of Earth (giant flies, giant spiders, giant tidal waves, etc.).  

The film incarnation of Mars Attacks! also features a different denouement than the card set.  In the cards,  the last act saw Earth man take his fight back to Mars, smash the Martian cities, and ultimately destroy the red planet.
Despite such notable differences, the movie version of Mars Attacks! does a fine job of bringing the imagery of the card set to vivid life, particularly in regards to the Martians, their colorful biology, their space age costumes and their wanton acts of violence.  These aspects of the film are delightfully and memorably rendered.

Some amusing scenes aboard the Martian saucer in the film even find the aliens in a surprising state of undress (wearing just tiny little underpants!) in much the same mode of trading card examples such as “Watching from Mars,” which similarly saw Martian citizens luxuriating (but in their Martian homes) while watching the destruction of Washington D.C. on wall-sized television screens.

After the distinctive and impressive look of the film, however, Burton’s Mars Attacks! plays an entirely different game.  Where the cards were gory and bloody, and sought to present a truly terrifying invasion of Earth by nightmarish monstrous creatures, the movie is played entirely for laughs, both as a satire of disaster movies and of Washington politics.  The Martians, though evil, are cinematic figures of fun and jokes, not of surreal, outer space terror.

“This could be a cultural misunderstanding.”

In impressive fashion, Mars Attacks! knowingly adopts the familiar cliches and traditions  of 1950s era science fiction alien invasion film and then gazes at them through the prism of 1990s political correctness. 

The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. 

The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson’s president), in the military (as represented by Steiger’s character), in big business (in Nicholson’s Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox’s attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by — shudder — Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan’s egghead character, Dr. Kessler). 

To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed “categories” seems blinded by agendas which don’t fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion).  In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively.  There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an “either/or,” binary approach. 

And again, in real life this was the era of  hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.  It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.

Here, Nicholson’s Commander-in-Cief must deal with Steiger’s jingoistic general, who rabidly wants to use nuclear weapons despite the fact that such weapons would render Earth largely uninhabitable for the human population.  That’s a non-starter.

On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan’s bleeding-heart scientist, who can’t seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.

Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.

Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that — in times of war — it’s okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first.  That’s the patriotic thing to do. 

Again, not a pretty picture in either case.

In the middle of all this turmoil stands an irresolute U.S. President who seems terrified to act one way or another, and keeps trying to contain the situation in decidedly milquetoast, half-measure terms.  Delightfully, this President isn’t a jab at any specific Chief Executive in American history, but rather a lethal combination of at least three of ’em.  Nicholson’s character boasts the cluelessness and affability of Reagan, the wimp factor of the first Bush, and Clinton’s love of polls (to help him decide which way the wind was blowing.)
As I noted above, the president’s unfortunate character traits represent a lethal combination for the Earth in this situation. This President just won’t stand up and fight, stating in PC-terms instead that the Martian bad behavior could be but a “cultural misunderstanding.” 

Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: “can’t we all just get along?”   That’s an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes

Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of “Pox on Both Your Houses” message of principle from the film itself.

To wit, in Mars Attacks! last act, it is the next generation by necessity that takes the helm after the destruction of the military, scientists, parents and the ruling political class. 

With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it’s up to the president’s resourceful  young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.

And again, the film’s last scenes — notably post-Martian and post-establishment — re-assert visually a sense of natural order.  Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.

 On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media.   And ensconced amongst the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas).  In other words, the disenfranchised of America.  A new world order? 

Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) “clean-up” crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito’s character.

Burton doesn’t reserve all his satirical jabs for politics, either. His film comments on generic Hollywood blockbusters too.  Mars Attacks! thus concerns an in-vogue American  obsession of the 1990s  (alien invasions), one featured on TV in the X-Files and in theatrical productions such as Species (1995), The Arrival (1996) and Independence Day (1996). He also revives the Irwin Allen template for disaster films.  In other words, big, expensive casts, and lots of destruction.  Only in this case, he plays both aspects not for spectacle…but for humor.

Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on…). 

Contrarily, the director seems to have a good time demolishing national monuments.  In Mars Attacks! Mount Rushmore gets re-painted with a Martian (not Martin) sheen, and the Washington Monument gets tipped over upon a squad of helpless Boy Scouts.   These moments are emblematic of a diabolical vicious streak, and accordingly, Mars Attacks! comes across as Tim Burton’s nastiest picture. 
And yet, simultaneously, by the end of the movie, Mars Attacks! writes itself off as a lark, breaking into song with Tom Jones and lunging full-bore into tongue-in-cheek laughs.  This is a daring and wicked, if precarious, creative combination.  I can’t  really say it’s a very commercial one, either.  
Think about it: Tim Burton spent over eighty million dollars to create a schlocky, big budget satire of a 1960s trading card franchise in the same summer that Independence Day premiered.  Talk about brass balls.   But his film is schizophrenic too.  It’s a little too gory to go over as easy comedy, and much too comedic to be taken as a serious sci-fi epic.
Instead, Mars Attacks! occupies a weird terrain in the Burton canon.  It’s a box office disappointment of tremendous invention but also scatter shot execution.   Really, Mars Attacks! is the Cannonball Run of alien invasion movies.  The movie is girded with recognizable stars and top-notch production values, occasionally uproarious, and yet strangely self-indulgent all at the same time.
But damn if those Martians aren’t completely awesome creations.  Someone should give them their own TV series. The time is ripe for another mean-spirited, gory alien invasion, if you ask me.

 Just imagine these guys at a Tea Party Rally, or Occupying Wall Street…

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

“You wanna conquer the world, you’re going to need lawyers, right?”
Mars Attacks (1996) 

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Technically-speaking, Tim Burton’s 1990 hit Edward Scissorhands is structured as a myth.  In other words, it’s deliberately a bed-time tale (told from a grandmother to her grandchild) that helps to explain some aspect of nature or existence
In this case, the book-end sequences in the film reveal the reasons why it often snows in one particular American town when, historically, it never snowed there before.
Beyond this unique aspect of the film’s structure, Edward Scissorhands conforms to another long-standing tradition of mythology or folklore by explicitly conveying a message that is aimed at illuminating social aspects of the film’s contemporary culture, meaning us, here, in modern America. 
In particular, the film serves as an excavation of not just another notable Burton outcast or misfit — and perhaps his most memorable one at that — but as a careful and moving indictment of a conformist dominant culture that is unable to accommodate an outsider’s presence. 
Underneath the almost Dr. Seuss-styled surface of Edward Scissorhands, the movie serves as an indictment of racism in white America, particularly 20th century America.  Although colored in cheery, light pastels, the film portrays a 1950s era “traditional” America (down to character name choices like “Peg”), that reveals an alarming sense of homogeneity and parochial thinking.  In terms of history, this was the span in which segregation laws (or Jim Crow laws) were still on the books, though the court system was slowly beginning to change that fact.
Beyond the social commentary,  Edward Scissorhands is entirely persuasive as fantasy, with an opening composition that literally invites the viewer through a slowly opening door, into the domain of Burton’s vivid and singular imagination.  The film also revels in Burton’s familiar obsession with Rube Goldberg-styled inventions, and even makes some trenchant observations about parenthood, notably comparing two father characters: the inventor (Vincent Price) and Bill (Alan Arkin).
Haunting and emotional, Edward Scissorhands stands amongst of my favorite Burton films, in part because it features a deliberately unhappy (if emotional…) ending, and doesn’t candy-coat its commentary in typical Hollywood bromides. 
In the end, the innocent and just Edward leaves the world at large, and his community too, but in notation of what has been lost because of his absence, some magic seems to go out of that world.   Except, of course, on the nights that it snows. 
That last wistful notation — that idea that magic can exist in our life if only we allow it to do so — is especially resonant, and a virtual trademark of Burton’s aesthetic.
“You can’t touch anything without destroying it!”
In Edward Scissorhands, a struggling make-up saleswoman, Peg (Dianne Wiest), leaves the safety of her suburban neighborhood to visit a Gothic mansion atop a nearby hill. 
There, she encounters a strange young man, Edward (Johnny Depp), who — alone after the death of his father, an inventor (Price) — now lives alone there.
Edward is unusual not only because of his gentle demeanor, but because he possesses long, sharp scissors for hands.
Peg brings Edward home with her to live in her family’s house, and the neighborhood quickly begins to gossip about this unusual newcomer.   Seeking to fit in, Edward begins to work for the people of the town in different capacities (and all for free). 
At first, he trims their hedges into the shapes of animals and other fanciful creatures.  Then, Edward uses his skill with scissors to groom the neighborhood dogs.  Before long, Edward is giving the stay-at-home wives in the neighborhoods elaborate new hair cuts.
At first, a neighbor named Joyce (Kathy Baker) is aroused by the presence of Edward — this “foreign” individual – in her humdrum, routine life, but when he refuses her aggressive sexual advances, she turns against him.  Then, the true target of Edward’s affection, Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) involves Edward in a robbery at the behest of her obnoxious boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall).  Edward nearly goes to jail.
Even more than before, the town turns against Edward, leaving him no choice but to return to the lonely castle where his idiosyncratic inventor once lived.  Kim and and Jim follow him to this retreat, and Edward is left with no choice but to kill the violent Jim.  Kim, who has developed feelings for Edward, realizes that she has no option but to say goodbye to this most unusual man. 
Kim leaves Edward alone in his castle.  But years later, she knows he still lives — immortal — because it snows in town.  Edward creates the snow himself: cast-off shavings of ice from the elaborate sculptures he creates of his one true love…
“I am not finished.”
A man with scissors for hands is certainly an original and unique creation, but Edward Scissorhands thrives as much on its depiction of Peg and Kim’s pastel suburban world as it does from the singular nature of its title character.
In particular, Burton imagines a flat world in which all the houses and cars look exactly the same.  There are only four of five pastel colors to choose from, and the very flatness of the terrain — lacking mountains and high trees — suggest the two-dimensionality and conformity of the neighborhood, the culture and the denizens.
In particular, Burton creates for us a so-called “Googie” town deliberately evocative of  the popular 1950s design.  In other words, the houses that appear in the film conform to the architecture popularized in the 1950s and termed “Googie” by House & Home writer Julius Shulman.  These popular tract homes featured such elements as large windows, up-swept roofs, pastel color schemes, and on the interior, star burst wall-clocks. And you see all of these touches explicitly visualized in Edward Scissorhands.  The production design by Bo Welch thus specifically harks back to the 1950s, that time of racial conformity in the United States and not incidentally, the span of Tim Burton’s youth.
Googie architecture was essentially mid-century modern in style, associated with the burgeoning space age and thus a spirit of can-do optimism.  But, counter-intuitively, Burton utilizes the Googie neighborhood as an indicator of the unthinking and yet visceral demand of the times to conform to the majority in terms of personal beliefs and mores, right down to choice and color of family homes.  What was designed to be an optimistic look at the “future” in America instead becomes here a signifier of the sameness of the people and their narrow or limited outlook on what it means to be a “real” American. 
When Edward enters this cookie-cutter Googie town, he is, at first, an object of curiosity.  Peg attempts to help him assimilate into the mainstream by modifying his facial complexion (with Avon make-up); so he won’t, essentially “stand out.”  He won’t be noticed and thus derided.  Again, considering the metaphor involving racism in the 1950s, it’s crucial that one note how Edward is made to change his skin color to be accepted in the neighborhood.
All the women (who seem to remain at home all day) gossip about Edward and desire to meet him.  But the only person who is cruel to Edward right from the beginning of his stay is the overtly Christian fundamentalist neighbor, who warns the neighbors that Edward is evil; Satanic actually.  And of course, this attitude also alludes to the 1950s milieu, and frequent white treatment of blacks.  In particular, black music was considered “devilish” and there was a terrible fear that the sexual, insidious music would infect upstanding white youths.  Even today, this ridiculous stereotype thrives.  How many U.S. Presidents, for instance, before Obama, have been widely termed the anti-Christ by religious authorities?
Still, Edward is welcomed into the homes of most of his neighbors, at least initially.  Importantly, however, it is in the capacity of worker or servant.  Edward tends to yards, grooms the dogs, and cuts hair.  He is, essentially, then, a harmless manservant able to do the domestic work that the middle class women do not wish to do.  He is fine as long as he knows his place and understands his role as a servant; as an assistant.
Importantly, the neighborhood goes from accepting Edward in this limited capacity to actually despising and hunting him (much like the Frankenstein Monster in James Whales’ masterpiece) after he is accused of making a sexual advance against Joyce…a white woman.  Notably, Joyce is actually the one who made sexual advances upon Edward, after vocally fetishizing his “foreign-ness” or “difference;” wondering aloud what tricks he could do (or undo) with those sharp scissor hands of his.  But she turns the tables and blames Edward for sexual advances, and the town takes her word for it.
Additionally, whenever Edward makes mistakes or misunderstands the nature of his place in the Googie neighborhood, the more accepting whites among the town make paternalistic excuses for him, without actually considering how he was treated by those around him. 
He can’t help the way he is,” says one character.  He must learn “not to take everything literally,” says Bill.  In both cases, Edward — definitively “the other” — is blamed when things go awry. Fault cannot rest, apparently, in such a happy, pastel, Googie place.  Instead, fault must rest with the guy who is different; not in the response of the society to the guy who’s different.  That’s a significant distinction.
In the end, the neighbors run Edward out of town permanently, back into the dark, menacing Gothic mansion on the hill, a place where he apparently belongs as a non-white, non-conforming “monster.”  This action thus represents the town’s way of rejecting racial integration, and insisting on the separate status of someone who looks different.  It’s an ugly display of parochial thinking, but also a once widespread attitude.
And yet, the film makes the case — in the last act — that the town has lost something beautiful by driving Edward away.  The magic and happiness he brought (diversity, perhaps?) has been sacrificed and lost.  Now, he occasionally bestows his magic — the snow — upon the town, but he is nonetheless forever apart from those who would benefit from his presence and particular skills.
The only man with scissor hands in the 1950s-styled Googie town, Edward remains quite the outsider and misfit.  His very touch is awkward and dangerous, and we see this quality clearly as he attempts to interface with Kim’s family.  On his first day in town, he accidentally punctures with his scissor hands Kim’s water bed, an act which on some metaphorical level suggests his implied/believed (sexual?) danger to the women of town.  By being different, he seems to be dangerous.
The social commentary about racism in Edward Scissorhands is a vital part of the film’s creative tapestry, and yet Burton creates sympathy for the character by establishing his total sense of alone-ness and incompleteness.  “I’m not finished yet,” Edwards declares at one point, and there are many of us who feel exactly the same way.  Like Edward, we are in the act of “becoming,” of growing and turning into something.  Because of his poor treatment at the hand of the town’s people, Edward does not become part of the community.  Instead, his destiny is to be alone.  What he becomes is…separate.
Tim Burton has occasionally stated that all his films come down to issues of parenthood, or fatherhood in particular. Here, Vincent Price plays the Inventor, a kindly man who created life, but was not able to perfect it before his untimely death.  In flashback scenes, we witness the old man’s kindness, but also his desire to play God, to create a life and control it.  Although it is not his fault that he died when he did, the scientist becomes an absentee father figure, unable to help Edward countenance the world when the young man needs him the most. 
Notably, Bill — despite some kindnesses — also fails Edward at a critical juncture.  He is never able to turn the town back to Edward’s side, and does not complain or object when Edward makes his final departure.  In both cases, the fathers don’t seem to want to take responsibility for the son they have made.
One of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of Edward Scissorhands involves the climax, in which Edward creates a blizzard, a snow storm, from his perch high over the town.  Like the rest of the film, this denouement is highly symbolic, and emblematic of Burton’s argument in favor of diversity and against conformity (or racism, particularly). 
For instance, some people believe that in the snow we see the reflection of God him (or her)self.  Snow is pure (like Edward) and incredibly individual: no two snow flakes are exactly like.  There is diversity amongst snow flakes and that’s a good thing…for each is beautiful in its own way and evidence of God’s ability create beauty in all forms.  By extension, Edward’s differences from the rest of the folks in the Googie town should make him an object of beauty and reverence, not a monster.
At the heart of Edward Scissorhands echoes the belief that we need not fear that which, upon first blush, appears different from the norm.  Sometimes what is different can change our life for the better and make us see life in a totally new light. 
You see, before he came down here, it never snowed,” Kim explains to her granddaughter with a sense of wonder.  “And afterwards, it did.”
Watching and experiencing Edward Scissorhands, you must decide if you want to be one of the villagers, trying to destroy that which appears different just because you’re afraid of the new, or someone who regards the snow…and wants to dance in it.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

“The years spent in isolation have not equipped him with the tools necessary to judge right from wrong. He’s had no context. He’s been completely without guidance. Furthermore, his work — the garden sculptures, hairstyles and so forth — indicate that he’s a highly imaginative…character. It seems clear that his awareness of what we call reality is radically underdeveloped.”
Edward Scissorhands (1990)