DVD Round-Up: 10/28/2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (10/1/2014)

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is about a pair of intellectual artists who are so culturally astute that they find themselves isolated from society and harboring beliefs that most humans are “zombies” who don’t truly appreciate art and are destructive to the world and to the environment. That’s right; this is a movie about hipsters… who also happen to be vampires. Indeed this is one of the humanized look at vampirism you’re likely to come across. Its characters are not monsters, they get their blood supply from hospitals and mostly keep to themselves. The movie probably wouldn’t be all that different if these characters had been mere immortals rather than vampires, but it does have fun finding examples of what life would be like for a pair of chilled out vampires living in a modern world. Indeed, this isn’t really a horror movie at all, like most of Jim Jarmusch’s films it mostly consists of a series of conversations without a whole lot of narrative backbone behind it all. It does a very good job of establishing these two characters and painting a portrait of what a couple of days in their lives would be like, but it doesn’t really give us a whole lot of a reason why we’re following them over the course of these specific nights. I think we’re supposed to be left with a feeling like this night was something of a turning point for the two leads, but I feel like the film could have done more to back that up. So, as is the case with a lot of Jarmusch’s movies, I’m left thinking there was a very good idea here that the director was a little too relaxed about to fully exploit.

*** out of four

The Sacrament (10/14/2014)

One of the few promising up-and-comers in the horror world is Ti West, whose films The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers have both generated significant buzz amongst genre aficionados while also getting some kudos within the general indie scene.  If his style is characterized by anything it’s patience.  His films are slow burns that build up to moments of intensity and they don’t feel obligated to fill themselves with little scares during the early scenes where the story is being set up.  His latest film is about three reporters (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucker Audley) who work for Vice (yes, that Vice) who have gone to a strange enclave called Eden Parish looking to document one of the reporter’s reunion with his sister (Amy Seimetz).  The enclave is located in an unnamed foreign country and is filled with disaffected Americans who have decided to leave their old lives behind at the insistence of their leader, an enigmatic man who calls himself father (Gene Jones).  Increasingly, this enclave begins to seem less like an innocent hippie commune and more like a Jonestown like cult.

In fact, calling this cult “Jonestown like” is perhaps misleading, because it’s more than “Jonestown like,” it’s almost exactly like Jonestown.  The story more or less follows the actual story of what happened to Jonestown beat for beat.  I was maybe expecting there to be some added twist, but no, all that’s really been changed is the era, the details of who are in the party documenting its last days, and a few other details here or there.  In this sense there wasn’t really much of a sense of surprise to the film, but Jonestown is one of the more disturbing stories of the 20th Century so a straightforward (if fictionalized) retelling of what happened there is not entirely unwelcomed.  The film uses a found-footage format, perhaps to its detriment.  It occasionally dips into the End of Watch sin of breaking its format here and there.  There are definitely some shots towards the end that don’t appear to have been filmed by any discernable character.  So the film isn’t flawless, but I still mostly liked it.  The performances are by and large quite good in that authentic found footage Youtube kind of way and some of the images towards the end do retain some real power and suspense.  It’s not Ti West’s most ambitious or elegant work, but it’s probably his most watchable, and it’s also probably one of the better horror movies of 2014.

*** out of Four

Oculus (10/17/2014)

The trailers for Oculus do not look promising, and neither does its premise.  I mean, what doesn’t sound lame about a movie about an evil mirror?  I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film a hidden gem or anything, but I’m happy to report that the film actually is decidedly better than it looks.  The film is ab out a mirror that is, for unspecified reasons, able to twist the perceptions of the people who are near it and drive them to kill themselves and others.  Ten years before the start of the film it did exactly that to the parents of our two protagonists, a brother and a sister who had to witness that haunting and are scarred by it.  As the film starts, the brother has just been released from a mental institution and soon afterwards the sister contacts him and tells him that she’s tracked down the mirror and is planning to expose its supernatural powers and then destroy it and most of the film cuts between what happens that evening and flashbacks of what went down when their parents were consumed by the mirror.

The film’s flashback structure is a big part of what differentiates it from many of the other haunted house movies that have been in vogue as of late, but it’s also kind of problematic.  At times the film seems to cut between the two stories really frequently and that sometimes robs the film of some of the tension that’s being built on both sides.  Beyond that, I kind of felt that some of the “rules” of how this mirror was supposed to do things were never quite clarified as well as they could have and the logic of how the characters behave sometimes is a bit off.  With those caveats out of the way, I actually quite liked the movie.  Karen Gillan does a great job of portraying her character’s obsession and her need for revenge while still making her seem like a realistic and likable person.  Brenton Thwaites is a bit less effective as the brother, but he’s alright.  The scares in the movie are not necessarily unique, but they don’t feel quite as clichéd as the ones in something like The Conjuring.  So, it’s not world changing at all, but if you’re looking for a modern horror movie to spice up your evening this will probably serve you pretty well.

*** out of Four

Willow Creek (10/23/2014)

For whatever reason comedy directors have been developing quite the interest in becoming horror directors as of late.  Kevin Smith has been trying to make the transition into horror, a lot of the mumblecore guys seem to be trying to make horror films, and now Bobcat Goldthwait has dipped his toe into the genre and from what I’ve seen I hope he never does again.  This movie is pointless.  It’s a found footage movie in the woods so bereft of content that it makes The Blair Witch Project look like a non-stop thrill ride of activity.  I’m sure that what was going through Goldthwait’s mind when he made it was that old adage “it’s what you don’t see that’s most frightening,” and that adage may be true but this is not how you fucking do it.  Making people afraid of offscreen horrors takes incredible skill and craftsmanship and Goldthwait clearly has neither of these things.  There’s a scene in this movie where the two highly uninteresting protagonists are just sitting in a tent for at least fifteen minutes hearing lame sound effects.  After eighty minutes of this amateurish nonsense there’s absolutely no payoff whatsoever.  Filmmakers, take another look at Jaws.  Yes it spends a lot of time not showing the shark, but guess what, in the last fifteen minutes they do give the audience what they expected: a big fucking shark eating people. Ugh.

1/2 out of Four

Witching & Bitching (10/28/2014)

Witching & Bitching is a Spanish horror/comedy (emphasis on comedy) from director Álex de la Iglesia. The film somewhat resembles Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Til’ Dawn in that it begins as a sort of crime comedy about a group of criminals on the run only to have these criminals stumble upon a supernatural evil. The difference is that the transition between crime movie and horror movie is a bit less sudden and also the film has a generally lighter tone throughout and perhaps more closely resembles the tone of something like Shawn of the Dead. The film also has a sort of “battle of the sexes” undercurrent in that all of the thieves on the run resent the women in their lives and there’s a certain irony in the fact that they find themselves face to face with a coven of man hating witches. The humor here is a bit scattershot. The actors do seem to have a good rapport and De La Iglesia does a good job of setting a good tempo for the movie, but some of the jokes get pretty lowbrow and the ending gets a little too crazy for its own good. Once a giant CGI creature got involved the movie really started to lose me, but I still thought it was a pretty enjoyable ride for the most part and parts of it were highly entertaining.

*** out of Four 

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Coraline/ParaNorman

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

In 1964 a former track runner and aspiring entrepreneur from Oregon named Phillip Knight was in Kobe Japan while on a post college trip around the world and while there he discovered a line of running shoes made by the Onitsuka Tiger company that so impressed him that he went out on a limb and bought distribution rights for these sneakers for the Western United States.  He then went home and showed the shoes to his old University of Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman, who offered to join together with Knight to sell them and they eventually formed a company called Blue Ribbon Sports.  Long story short, the company worked out pretty well for them.  By 1971 they started designing and manufacturing their own sneakers and changed their name to Nike, Inc.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Why am I talking about a sneaker company?  Well, decades later Phillip Knight met another Oregonian businessman, an animator named Will Vinton who had a small but growing animation studio.  This studio was probably most famous for having done work on the movie Return to Oz and for making the Fox TV series “The PJs.”  Vinton needed a new investor and that’s where Phillip Knight came in.  Knight’s son Travis was an aspiring animator and it seems like getting him a job was a large motivating factor in him making an investment in the company.  Will Vinton Studios continued to struggle though and eventually Knight purchased the studio outright, placed Travis Knight on the board, had Vinton himself leave the company (with a severance package), and rebranded it as Laika animation.

So, we’ve got a rich entrepreneur buying a company for his son and placing him at its head out of sheer nepotism and pushing out the artist who started it.  That’s not exactly the most inspiring origin story for an animation studio and poetic justice would probably demand that the company’s output would be soulless product devoid of artistic merit, but that isn’t what ended up happening at all.  Instead, Laika has become something of a specialist in making “alternative family films.”  They use stop motion to make films that are still more or less for families but which are a little edgier and more offbeat than what gets made even in quality animation studios like Pixar.  That’s not to say that they’re making movies that are wildly transgressive or uncommercial, they do get wide releases after all, but it is telling that they’re distributed by Universal’s Focus Features imprint rather than the parent company.  Their films have so far had a creepier, more horror tinged tone, and that tone was established by their breakout first feature: Coraline.

Coraline (2009)

For their debut feature, Laika turned to two people with an established track record in dark fantasy: Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman.  Selick is an animation pro most famous for being the director of the Tim Burton produced The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. However he was also responsible for the film Monkeybone which was a pretty big flop and could have ended his career as the director of feature length films.  He spent most of the 2000s in the wilderness; he did the practical effects work on Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou in 2004 and in 2005 he met up with Laika and directed their Annie nominated CGI short film “Moongirl.”  The collaboration seemed to work out and for their first feature film Laika and Selick decided to adapt Neil Gaiman’s 2002 young adult novel “Coraline.” Gaiman is of course a pretty ubiquitous name in the world of dark fantasy and even today is perhaps best known as the creator of the “mature readers” comic book series “The Sandman.”  Some of his work is meant for children, some is made squarely for adults, but everything he does maintains a certain sense of dark whimsy and if the film is any indication that’s certainly true about “Coraline.”

Coraline came out in 2009, a year that I’ve talked about a lot over the course of this series.  It was easily the biggest year for “mature” family films like this and Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up and so on and so forth.  The film from that year that it reminds me of the most is probably actually Where the Wild Things Are in that both films are about attention-starved little kids who need to escape to a fantasy world because their parents don’t want to entertain them.  Both films are perhaps playing off of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, which did something similar within more R-rated trappings and each film does so with different levels of ambiguity.  I interpret the fantastical elements of Where the Wild Things to be entirely within the child’s imagination for example while I think Pan’s Labyrinth is supposed to be pretty ambiguous.  I think Coraline, by contrast, is supposed to be taken literally for the most part but like the other two movies you can kind of see how a similar adventure could fill a void that the protagonist needs at this point in her life.

Come to think about it, the movie is also kind of similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  Both films have their child protagonists trying to save their parents, who’ve been captured by a malevolent force, and both are forced to explore a strange parallel world filled with wonders and terrors.  However, all this talk of other movies perhaps makes the film sound more derivative than it really is.  In fact, this is a pretty damn creative movie by family film standards.  The film doesn’t use stereotypical Halloween ghouls (vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.) and instead gives us an abstract demon with a unique looks and modus operandi which never quite loses its mystery.  The film uses dollhouses as a motif and manages to use the image of people who’ve had their eyes replaced with buttons to good effect.

In general, the film doesn’t feel much like The Nightmare Before Cristmas at all.  That film tried to feel like a funhouse rollercoaster with its songs and scattershot horror ideas, while Coraline is significantly more focused and subdued.  The character models look relatively realistic by stop-motion standards and, at least while the film is in the real world, and it’s a lot more relatable than the fantastical realms of Tim Burton’s stop-motion films. Selick seems to have grown a lot as a filmmaker in the nearly twenty years since he made TNBC; he’s developed an eye for interesting tilted camera angles and uses them judiciously and to good effect.  At times the film does seem to break the immersion with an off choice here or there.  For instance, there’s a character named Mr. Bobinsky who seems completely out of place, firstly because he’s a large personality and secondly because he’s inexplicably blue.  For the most part though, the film has a very good grasp of tone and rarely makes stupid mistakes to dumb things down for the audience.

One thing that did sort of disappoint me about the film was actually the character of Coraline.  From the film’s advertising I’d kind of gotten the impression that Coraline was something like twelve or thirteen years old, but she was actually more like eight or nine, and that makes a pretty big difference.  Frankly, she sort of seemed like a brat.  I did not particularly like Dakota Fanning’s voice performance in the film and I couldn’t really relate to the character’s general immaturity and gullibility.  When the alternate world presents itself, we as an audience are already well aware that it’s evil and it’s a little frustrating that the character doesn’t see through the façade.  Still, this is less of a problem during the second half of the film after the villain has presented herself and is in full-on witch mode.  It’s at that point where the film moves from being merely unsettling to being what is about as creepy as it gets in a PG rated animated film.

I don’t know that I’d call Coraline “great” by any means, but it did impress me a lot more than most family movies and I totally see why it stood out as much as it did when it came out.  Like a lot of movies, it attempts to be a modern fairy tale and does it in a very smart and highly literate way.  There’s a creativity to it that’s all too often lacking in family films and its execution feels fascinatingly uncompromising.  This is not the kind of movie you make when you’re trying to set your studio up as the next Dreamworks or Pixar, it’s the kind of movie you make when you’re trying to become the next Studio Ghibli.  Laika clearly wants to carve out and dominate a niche and Coraline was the perfect calling card to build that niche.  If I had seen this when I was a kid I probably would have loved it, and I suspect there’s a whole cadre of fourteen year olds around today who saw this when they were nine and will one day be very nostalgic for it.

ParaNorman (2012)

Coraline made a pretty big splash in 2009, but I never really heard the word “Laika” when people were discussing it.  I certainly heard “Henry Selick” and occasionally I heard “Neil Gaiman,” but I think most people just saw “Laika” as just another logo in front of a movie.  They would have to forge their own identity soon though because they weren’t able to renegotiate Henry Selick’s contract and after the release of Coraline he parted ways with the studio.  For their next project they turned to a pair of co-directors named Sam Fell and Chris Butler.  Butler (who also wrote the screenplay) was a storyboard artist on Coraline and on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride while Fell was perhaps best known for his work with Aardman Animation where he directed Flushed Away.  The movie they (along with Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone, who have “story by” credits) came up with is another horror-tinged family film called ParaNorman.

Initially ParaNorman comes off as a sort of lighthearted take on The Sixth Sense because it’s about a young boy named Norman who has the power to see ghosts roaming around in the world.  Unlike The Sixth Sense’s Cole, Norman more or less doesn’t seem all that disturbed by this power even though it occasionally makes him a bit of an outcast with his family and among his peers.  He’s a bit older than Coraline was and is perhaps a bit more aware of the situations he’s facing even though he does occasionally screw up here and there as well.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the supporting characters though.  I’ve come to find that animation generally tends to lean towards stereotypes more often than live action films, possibly because actors have the power to inject thinly drawn characters with more humanity when they’re on set, and ParaNorman is not an exception to this rule.  The supporting characters are: a blonde cheerleader who talks like a valley-girl, an overweight nerdy kid, a schoolyard bully, and a dim jock.  Here and there each of these characters is given one (and usually only one) moment or trait that differentiates them from the stereotype they represent, but I don’t think that’s really enough.

I’ve called both Coraline and ParaNorman “horror tinged,” but they go about it in very different ways.  Coraline was more of a dark fantasy story than a traditional horror film and the demon at the heart of all the trouble manifested itself in unconventional but still somewhat disturbing ways.  By contrast the “horror” in ParaNorman is more like a kid-friendly version of traditional horror movie devices like ghosts and zombies.  Fell and Butler clearly know their horror movies as evidenced by the little references that pepper the movie (a dude wearing a hockey mask here, a Halloween ringtone there, etc.) and one could intuit that the fact that Norman seems to spend his days watching old zombie movies on VHS is an autobiographical touch on their part.  As family films go this is slightly more gruesome than I might have expected.  The zombies really do look like rotting corpses and there’s even a scene where a zombie is run over by a car and has his head come off.  I feel like Laika was nervous that they may have gone “too far” with some of it so the film has a lot of comedy in it as well, some of it rather questionable.  I don’t know that a scene about taking a book from a dead man’s hands needed to be a slapstick sequence and I also don’t think the sight of villagers with torches and guns needed to be a joke given the themes at hand either.

It is finally revealed that the spooy goings on are the result of an accused witch getting revenge on the town that executed her in the 15th Century.  As such, the film sort of falls into the same trap that a lot of movies fall into when they’re inspired by the Salem witch trials which is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too.  It wants the trials to be an act of irrational injustice, but it also wants there to be a real witch, and that sort of invalidates the former point because these trials seem a lot less unjust if there actually are witches on trial.  The film tries to sidestep by suggesting that this magic this girl was on trial for using wasn’t actually witchcraft so much as it was some sort of inherited psychic power they didn’t understand, but that doesn’t explain what the other witches were on trial for.  Anyway, the film is very clearly trying to impart a message about intolerance and revenge, and it makes this incredibly clear in its final act when expresses this moral through on-the-nose speechifying on the part of the protagonist.  It’s kind of a lazy and overly direct way to get the point across and it also generally feels unearned because we’re given no indication earlier on that Norman has this level of maturity and it doesn’t really feel like something that develops over the course of the film.

On a technical level, ParaNorman is certainly a step forward for Laika.  The sets are a lot more elaborate, the characters look pretty smooth (even if the models are probably more exaggerated than they needed to be, and the protruding ears are just weird), and there’s generally just a lot more movie to be found in the production values.  But on an artistic level, I think it’s a step backwards.  While Coraline felt like an uncompromising and moody piece, ParaNorman just kind of feels like a typical animated family film in a number of ways.  Its humor, its moralizing, its stock characters, its basic story structure, it all skews pretty close to the basic 2000s animated film formula that I’ve been noticing as this series goes on.  It still executes pretty well and the stop-motion visuals are well done, but it just doesn’t feel special in the way that Coraline did.

In Conclusion

With Pixar in decline, Dreamworks still being Dreamworks whenever they aren’t making movies about Dragons, and even Studio Ghibli looking like it’s going to struggle for a while, Laika is looking like one of the few sources of hope amongst those wanting to see artistic family films.  That said I’m kind of worried about them.  I thought Coraline was clearly the better of their two movies and audiences seemed to feel the same way given that ParaNorman did not end up making as much money as Coraline did.  That may partly be because ParaNorman came out at roughly the same time that another horror-tinged stop-motion family film, Tim Burton’s Frankenweeie, came out which sort of led the two movies to sort of cannibalize each other but I think it has just as much to do with Coraline being more of a must-see than ParaNorman.  Laika has another movie out right now as of this writing called The Box-Trolls and it seems to be catching on with the public even less, so I hope we’re not just getting diminishing returns from this studio.  Still, I think they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt and I do plan to keep an eye on whatever they do next.

Kill the Messenger(10/10/2014)

High school American history courses rarely made it too deep into the twentieth century.  It’s never going to be easy to fit over five hundred years of history into a single year of classes and the odds of keeping things on schedule are kind of slim.  Odds are good that they’ll barely even have time to reach Vietnam much less give it the time it needs to fully explain, and it’s even less likely that they’ll have time to really dig into the Iran-Contra affair.  Rightly or wrongly, American history just generally seems a lot more complicated when you have to dig into the cold war and what could be more complicated than a scandal in which America sold weapons to an enemy in order to illegally fund a group that’s fighting another supposed enemy.  In the late 80s the whole scandal proved a little too complicated to really rally popular outrage around and it’s even less understood today.  Of course what’s really crazy is that the scandal was actually a lot deeper than anyone thought at the time and it’s that deeper dimension that was explored by journalist Gary Webb and by the new film Kill the Messenger, which examines the life of Gary Webb and the story that got him into very hot water.

As the film begins Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is a successful investigative journalist, but one who’s still relegated to working for the relatively small San Jose Mercury News.  His area of expertise is the war on drugs and this has led him to meet some colorful character.  One such colorful character was Coral Baca (Paz Vega), a young woman whose boyfriend (Aaron Farb) was facing drug charges and believed Webb’s reporting would help his case.  She came to him armed with a legal document that was supposed to be classified but which was accidentally released by the justice department in discovery.  The document revealed that the key witness in this trial, a man named Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), was a government informant who been working for the government even though he was at the highest levels of cartel work and was seemingly a bigger fish than the man he was testifying against.   Webb contacts the lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) of another drug dealer named “Freeway” Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams) who also stands to have Blandon testifying against him and convinces the lawyer to ask a very specific set of questions to Blandon while he’s on the stand.  These questions reveal a larger conspiracy to on the part of the government that Webb resolves to reveal to the world at any cost.

If nothing else, Kill the Messenger has a pretty damn impressive cast.  Jeremy Renner is of course the centerpiece and plays Webb as a cocky invesegator that kind of reminds me of later-day Robert Downey Jr.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt both realistically portray his bosses at the newspaper while Andy Garcia, Michael K. Williams, and Yul Vazquez portray some of the shady characters involved in the conspiracy that’s being unraveled and Rosemarie DeWitt does an admirable job as Webb’s longsuffering wife.  That’s a pretty impressive ensemble already but beyond that the film features small appearances by Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ray Liotta.  This cast of recognizable actors helps to keep the many different characters involved in the narrative straight for the audience.

The main reason to recommend Kill The Messenger is the story.  If you’re not already familiar with Gary Webb and his Dark Alliance articles then I’d definitely recommend the movie.  This is an important story and it’s presented here in a watchable and accessible way.  Having said that, I feel like the movie is still something of a missed opportunity.  Michael Cuesta certainly directs the film competently, but he doesn’t really bring a master auteur’s eye to the table.  He’s a little too enamored with montages and he just never brings that paranoid thriller intensity to the proceedings and his visual style is merely functional.  The film also fails to really bring a really thought provoking take on the situation.  Webb is seen almost entirely as a martyr brought down by the professional jealousy of his colleagues.  There may be a lot of truth to that narrative but that’s pretty much the standard company line at this point.  Webb was not perfect, he was a guy who flew a little too close to the sun and got burned and I feel like there was a more nuanced way to tell this story.

*** out of Four

Crash Course: Yuppie Horror

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

The horror genre has gone through a lot of phases over the years, some of them more reputable than others.  One phase that people like to forget is one that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s just as the initial slasher-movie craze was starting to wane and the post-Scream slasher revival hadn’t started yet.  These movies all shared one common trait: they were all about upper class (or at least upper-middle class) people and families being plagued by an outside threat.  These weren’t all horror movies really, many of them would better be classified as thrillers, but they definitely shared some conventions with more conventional horror movies. In fact, as these movies got more popular some argued that these movies are really just Freddy Krueger movies with a veneer of sophistication that’s been painted onto them.

The commercial highpoint of the genre was almost certainly the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, in fact the very existence of the genre may be entirely attributed to screenwriters ripping off that blockbuster, which is probably why almost all of them are about people who suddenly have crazy people enter their lives.  These movies were respected at the time, well at least more respected than other horror movies.  Many of them had high profile directors and featured fairly famous actors who would have never been caught dead starring in conventional horror movies at this time.  And yet, this is a movement that is largely forgotten about today and those who do remember it do so with a certain amount embarrassment or at least disinterest.  This is why I’m pretty curious to see how they hold up, so I’m going to watch the yuppie horror films I’ve yet to see as part of this special Halloween installment of the Crash Course.

The Stepfather (1987)

Almost every time the police capture a serial killer you hear people who knew them say they seemed like the nicest most unassuming people they ever knew… which is pretty far removed from the serial killers you saw in most 80s horror films like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees.  The Stepfather is in many ways an attempt to bring the conventions of 80s slasher films to a slightly more realistic and down to earth murder story.  Based on the story of real life killer John List, the film opens by revealing that a man has murdered his family and casually left them behind.  It then shifts to one year later and we’re horrified to learn that he’s remarried to a widow with a teenage daughter and seems to be replaying the cycle all over again.

Terry O’Quinn (yeah, John Locke himself) plays the titular stepfather, and the movie is probably best remembered for his performance.  Indeed, he does a great job of showing the many sides of this psycho and does a great job of shifting from being an upstanding family man to being an obsessive killer.  That said, pretty much every other performance in the movie is really lousy.  That extends to a lot of things about the film because as much as this anticipates the yuppie horror trend it also keeps one foot firmly planted in the world of low budget slasher movies (it is not a coincidence that this is the only of the yuppie horror movies here that was made before Adrian Lyne classed up the genre with Fatal Attraction).  The film has a lot of Friday the 13th style stedicam shots, a jarring scene of gratuitous nudity, and a truly horrendous John Carpenter-wannabe synth score.

So why is such a poorly made film considered something of a well-remembered genre classic?  Mainly because it’s actually pretty thematically rich for what it is.  While most slasher movies are about the horrors of the world invading idyllic suburban lives, this movie suggests that maybe the pursuit of that idyllic lifestyle is where that horror begins.  The titular stepfather is a man who seems to be obsessed with the idealized “Leave it to Beaver” nuclear family and lashes out when his new families are unable to live up to that ideal.  In many ways the film could actually be viewed as an allegory for domestic violence as it’s perceived by children in the way that the stepfather uses the veneer of wholesome family life to hide his violent tendencies and the way the wife puts up with his erratic behavior for reasons the daughter cannot really understand.  So, if you’re the kind of person who likes to over-analyze exploitation B-movies (and I sort of am) then this movie will give you food for thought but if that doesn’t interest you I wouldn’t really recommend it.

**1/2 out of Four

Dead Calm (1989)

Given that it’s set on a damn yacht, Dead Calm would seem to be the yuppiest of yuppie horror films. However, it actually differs from other movies in the genre in a handful of ways. The most obvious is that it’s clearly a larger production than most of these movies given that it’s set on the open sea in a couple of boats. Also, while it is technically a movie about a crazy person entering the lives of an unsuspecting family, the fact that he’s crazy is made clear pretty quickly and there isn’t the same creeping dread about the fact that the yuppies are in an increasing amount of danger. In fact, it plays out much more like a straight-up adventure movie than I was expecting. The film opens on a horrific accident in which a married couple’s child is killed and I was kind of expecting the film to take on an Antichrist-like tone of greif-stricken isolation that would inform the rest of the movie, but they actually forget about that loss pretty quickly and just focus on their own predicament for most of the movie.

The couple in question are played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman, who both give reasonable if unspectacular performances. The more questionable casting is probably Billy Zane, as the lunatic who sets off this series of unfortunate events. This is a character who should have dominated the film, but I don’t really know that Zane brought the overwhelming menace he needed to. It’s kind of a waste because this is an open invitation to chew the hell out of a lot of scenery and there are other actors who could have done a lot with it. Otherwise I’d say that the movie plays out at a consistent B+ level, with some tense scenes played very well and other scenes sort of botched. This is one of those thrillers where you sometimes feel like the protagonists are making a lot of blunders just to keep the film going which they otherwise wouldn’t make. Kidman is probably given a half dozen opportunities to kill Zane which go unused for example. Still the movie does a reasonably good job of keeping things going and mixing it up over the course of the film.

If there’s one thing worth examining more deeply it’s probably the film’s gender politics. Some of the film’s more rapey elements would probably not go over very well today, but there is an inversion of the damsel in distress trope going on here that is worth commenting on. Once the main conflict is in place it seems like we’re meant to expect Kidman to be held captive as Neil rushes to save her, but this isn’t how it plays out. Rather, Kidman ends up saving herself (more or less) and it ends up being Neil who needs to be saved by Kidman at the end (at least until the obviously studio mandated coda at the end which is best left ignored). It’s stuff like that which gives Dead Calm the appearance of something special, but really it’s kind of a missed opportunity. It’s got a good setup but never really gets the psychological tone right and I think it indulged some dumb studio notes. Still, it’s a serviceable thriller which definitely has its moments.

*** out of Four

Pacific Heights (1990)

While The Stepfather predated Fatal Attraction and Dead Calm was different enough that it didn’t really need to live in its shadow, Pacific Heights is the first of the yuppie horror films to be pretty obviously inspired by the success of that Adrian Lynne film in 1987. Here we are once again treated to a pair of upper middle class people (albeit a little younger this time) who find their lives turned upside down when a crazy person shows up in it. This time we look at a young couple (Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) are the new owners of an apartment building that they have purchased at great risk by taking out a mortgage that they can only pay if they collect all their rent payments promptly. The plan is upended when a man named Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton) becomes one of their first tenants and promptly begins acting strangely. He makes noise all through the night but never answers the door and his rent payments haven’t shown up either and when these inexperienced landlords try to evict him he finds a number of ways to dodge the orders.

The film is in certain ways a 1990s answer to Cape Fear (it was made a year before Martin Scorsese’s remake) in that it’s about a psychopath who terrorizes a family without ever really breaking any laws and occasionally making them look like the bad guy. Unlike Cape Fear, Carter Hayes’ motivations are never entirely clear. Sometimes he comes off like he’s merely a con man who hopes to profit from what he’s doing, other times he seems like he just gets off on causing mischief, and sometimes he seems like a straight-up psycho. The goal of the movie is to put you in the shoes of these landlords who suddenly find themselves in the middle of this kafka-esque spiral of trouble. However, the movie sort of undercuts this by making its protagonists (but particularly the Matthew Modine character) almost impossible to relate to or sympathize with. The Modine character is a flat out impulsive moron who brings most of his problems on himself by getting ridiculously aggressive and making mind-bogglingly stupid decisions at every turn and never fucking learns. He makes the boyfriend in Paranormal Activity look calm and collected by comparison. The Melanie Griffith character is a bit more likable and proves to be more capable than she looks by the end, but she’s also under-developed and Griggith’s performance isn’t much better than Modine’s.

Michael Keaton obviously gives the standout performance here, but I still don’t know that I’d really call Carter Hayes a particularly good villain. In fact I strongly suspect that earlier versions of the script (or perhaps early cuts of the film even) had Hayes being less of a dangerous psychopath and more of a jackass trying to rip people off and that this was changed at the last minute by a studio note that demanded that the film play more like a thriller and that a bunch of shots of Keaton behaving like a sinister creep be added which don’t really get followed through on. There’s a really bizarre scene with Hayes right at the very beginning of the film that seems to be completely incongruous with everything that comes after and I can’t help but wonder if this is a residual piece of that alternate version of the film. Who knows, at the end of the day this just isn’t nearly as good of a film as it could have been. It’s certainly beneath the dignity of director John Schlesinger (who seemed to have fallen off in a big way during the 80s) and is generally just kind of forgettable.

** out of Four

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)

Director Curtis Hanson has had a pretty wacky career all told. He started out making B-grade comedies like Losin’ It, then became the maker of slick if schlocky and dated Hollywood thrillers, then out of nowhere he became a legitimate prestige filmmaker in the late 90s and early 2000s when he made L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile but then kind of fell apart again and has only made mediocrities in the ensuing years. The film I’m looking at today is obviously from that middle period, a yuppie horror film called The Hand that Rocks the Cradle about a crazy nanny who tries to get revenge on the woman who brought rape allegations against her now deceased husband by infiltrating the family, making the mother look bad, and then killing her and taking her place.

Obviously this premise is pretty wacky and wouldn’t be too out of place in a soap opera. In usual yuppie horror movie tradition it’s a story of a crazy person entering into a rich couple’s otherwise perfect lives and using lies, trickery, and murder to try to destroy what they have. This time around their doing this through a relationship that is especially yuppie-ish: that of a family and their live-in nanny. Yeah, I know, it’s something that only a select handful of rich people (most likely including the execs who green lit the thing) are likely to relate to. However, there is sort of something there. Late in the movie there’s a scene where the crazy nanny says something along the lines of “When your husband makes love to you, it’s my face he sees! When your baby is hungry, it’s my breast that feeds him. Look at you! When push comes to shove, you can’t even breathe.” She’s plainly delusional about some of that, but she’s not entirely wrong: when you hire someone else to do all of your parenting are you really that child’s parent anymore? It’s a question that was addressed a little more tastefully (if with mawkish sentimentality) in the 2011 film The Help, but in its own thriller way the same theme is addressed here as well.

The problem with this movie isn’t so much a matter of theme as it is a matter of execution. For one thing, the screenplay (written by Amanda Silver who would go on to write Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes of all things) could have been a lot smarter than it is. For example I think the movie would have been a lot more interesting if the crazy nanny’s revenge had been motivated by an actual legitimate beef rather than some delusional notion that her husband didn’t deserve what he got. Beyond that though, I think the cast sort of lets this film down. Annabella Sciorra is alright as the protagonist, but Rebecca De Mornay just doesn’t really bring the evil as the crazy nanny. This is a role that probably should have been approached in the most over-the-top scenery-chewing way imaginable, especially in the climax, but De Mornay just didn’t know how to “go there.” Meanwhile Matt McCoy has zero screen presence as the husband and Julianne Moore is hampered by some questionable dialogue and dated hair/costume choices. Then there’s Ernie Hudson who has the absolutely thankless role of the mentally handicapped handyman with a heart of gold who has to save the day at the end. All told, this is one of the more blatant Fatal Attraction wannabe’s of all the yuppie horror flicks and while there’s a kernel of a good idea behind it and one or two effective scenes, the movie as a whole is nothing to write home about.

**1/2 out of Four

Single White Female (1992)

This is that last of a series of “Yuppie Horror” films that I’ve watched, and I kind of assumed that this would be the nadir of the genre.   While I wouldn’t call it a great movie by any means, I was actually surprised to find it a cut above some of its peers and overall I found it to probably be the strongest of the five movies I looked at.  Why is that?  Well, I think it’s mostly because of the performances.  As the title implies, this is a younger and more urban variety of yuppie that we’re dealing with this time around.  The main character (played by Bridget Fonda) is a computer programmer (an occupation which allows the film to use a very old-school version of the internet in a couple of scenes) who has just broken up with her live-in boyfriend (Steven Weber) after she discovers that he’s been unfaithful.  To fill the void and help pay for her expensive New York apartment she puts out an ad for a new roommate which is answered by a somewhat awkward but occasionally charming woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Given that this is a Yuppie horror movie and all of those involve people getting their lives torn apart after they accidentally let an insane person into their homes… you can probably guess how well that works out.

Say what you will about yuppie horror movies, but for the most part they were generally able to get strong casts, and then squander them.  Previous yuppie horror movies have had people like Nicole Kidman, Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, and Julianne Moore but they haven’t always been able to elicit the best out of these talented actors.  On paper the cast here probably actually looks weaker than some of the other films, but I think they mostly do a better job than I expected.  Jennifer Jason Leigh in particular really does some standout work here as the crazy roommate.  They don’t actually say it in the script but her character is actually supposed to have a Borderline Personality Disorder rather than just some unspecified form of insanity, and the way that this escalates over the course of the film feels more natural than it usually does in these films.  That isn’t to say that this is going to necessarily be a 100% authentic depiction of mental illness, and I’m sure a trained psychiatrist would say that the depiction isn’t really that much less silly than the ones in the other movies on paper, but Jennifer Jason Leigh sells it and makes it feel real.  I don’t want to oversell her work, it isn’t Oscar-worthy or anything, but there is something to be said for weaving gold from straw like this.

Single White Female was directed by Barbet Schroeder and it was kind of an odd choice for him given that he’d just made the excellent film Reversal of Fortune.  You’d think that a critical and awards success like that would give him the clout to make another prestige film, so why was he making a uber-mainstream thriller like this?   I’m not really sure what the story is there, but I think he more or less did do the best with what he was given.  Like most of these films, this does tap into a real life anxiety of middle-class life, specifically the awkwardness of sharing a space with a relative stranger, especially when they maybe start getting a little too close even when you maybe don’t want them to be.  This isn’t a perfect movie either, it’s probably one of the less intense examples of the genre once it gets past the psychological cold war and gets into the cat fighting.  Still, while I don’t want to oversell it too much, this is probably the yuppie horror film with the fewest problematic performances and the fewest odd cringe inducing moments.

*** out of Four

So what have I learned from watching all off these yuppie horror films?  Not a whole lot really.  I am a little curious about what was in the water during the late 80s and early 90s to make people so afraid of meeting people who turn out to be crazy.  All five of the films had their pros and cons.  The Stepfather had the most political subtext but a fairly trashy aura, Dead Calm had the best production values and the most creative concept but was also never really able to maintain psychological tension, Pacific Heights was probably the most realistic (relatively speaking) but had some of the most annoying protagonists, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle… has the best title I guess but was the most shamelessly calculated, and Single White Female has the best acting and the least ridiculous depiction of mental illness (again, relatively speaking) but was maybe less able to throw down once the gloves came off.  I’ve already mentioned that Single White Female is probably my favorite of the three, but it might have benefited from expectations that had gotten pretty low at that point in the series.  All five of these movies were fairly minor blips on the pop culture radar, they each had minor elements to make them stand out a little, but overall they don’t register to quickly on our collective memory.  Still they were fun to watch together and compare and I’m glad I decided to check them out in this context.

Gone Girl(10/4/2014)

 

Warning: I’ve tried to keep this relatively spoiler-free, but it’s pretty much impossible to talk about this movie without at least hinting at some of its revelations, so read at your own risk

 

One of the keys to understanding the career of David Fincher is to realize that, unlike many directors of his caliber working today, he’s not a writer.  While other auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan have relative control over what their next projects will be, Fincher is sort of at the mercy of which scripts are floating around Hollywood at any given time and given that his style and sensibility is only going to lend itself to certain projects, that leaves him with a limited set of options.  Sometimes that means he takes on questionable Oscar-bait like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, sometimes it means taking on a highly commercial thriller like Panic Room or The Game, and recently it’s meant taking on adaptations of popular “beach reads” like his last film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  His new film is also based on a best-selling ultra-modern thriller that deals with gender issues: Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.”

The mystery begins when a Missouri bar owner and former writer named Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing and his coffee table overturned as if to suggest a break-in.  He calls 911 and a detective named Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) arrives who begins a search and investigation that quickly becomes a nationwide media story.  Theories of the crime start to fly around and Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect both for the media and the police and pretty much the only person who seems to entirely believe in him is his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon).  Meanwhile, the film uses entries in Amy’s diary to give us a series of flashbacks telling us the story of what Nick and Amy’s marriage has been like up to this point.

Gone Girl is, if nothing else, an effective mystery.  The case of the hidden wife is intriguing in part because we aren’t strictly following if from the perspective of the detective but also from the perspective of the husband… who happens to be the prime suspect in the crime and who could well be the guilty party.  The audience is never quite sure whether they’re watching an innocent man trying to clear his name or a cold blooded killer trying to cover up his crimes.  The film also expertly places a red herring into the mix pretty quickly which does a good job of distracting the viewer from the correct solution.  Now, the eventual revelation of what’s going on is a little… well, it takes a certain suspension of disbelief.  I suppose stranger things have happened in real life but when they do and they end up being profiled on 20/20 you end up saying “If I didn’t know that was true I’d never believe it.”  To enjoy Gone Girl you just sort have to accept that this is just one of those stories and go with it.

If I have any major complaint about Gone Girl it’s that the screenplay, which was written by Gillian Flynn herself, is never quite able to fit itself into the template of a film.  It’s got some false-ending issues and never quite knows how to wrap itself up, and its use of flashbacks never quite seems to work perfectly.  It’s strange that Fincher, who seems like such a control freak and perfectionist in every other aspect of his style, has allowed two straight movies to get a little bit out of control on a structural level.  Then again, maybe that’s nitpicking and I should just view it as some kind of miracle that they managed to adapt this book as well as they did for as long as they did.

Those who’ve been following Fincher’s last couple of films probably know what to expect from Gone Girl on a stylistic level.  Once again we get crisp digital cinematography, good depth of field trickery, invisible special effects, and smart framing.  It works here once again but I am beginning to get the feeling that Fincher maybe needs to shake things up a bit and move beyond this post-Zodiac stage of his career.  It’s maybe time for him to stop working with Trent Reznor as a composer, or maybe find some new technical trick, or find some new way to surprise us because I do feel like he’s getting a bit complacent.  But, again, for the time being Fincher’s “business as usual” approach does work for the film and it doesn’t hurt that he managed to round up a pretty good cast.  Ben Affleck does pretty much what you expect of him, he’s a pretty consistent movie star and whenever he finds a role that’s right for him (and this one is) he usually does what he needs to.  Rosamund Pike is also really good, although I do think the voice she chooses for the character is maybe a little snottier than it needs to be.  Beyond that the film rounds up some lesser known actors like Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens to great effect, and even Tyler Perry adds something to the film playing a character who acts as something of an audience surrogate and points out how crazy the story is and can’t help but giggle at it all.

Alright, so far what I’ve been describing is a well-made potboiler but Flynn’s story does have greater social and thematic ambitions than that.  The film’s story (at least up until about the half-way point) strongly resembles the Scott Peterson case both in the details of the crime and in the fact that it was a media circus that surrounded what was ultimately not a criminal case that was really all that newsworthy beyond some of its gossipy elements.  Similarly, the media plays a very big role in Gone Girl.  Affleck’s character spends much of the film being tried in the court of public opinion and finds his every last movement and statement being picked apart as speculation begins to run wild.  Missi Pyle is in the film playing a cable TV host who is almost certainly based on Nancy Grace in a handful of scenes that manage to be bitingly satirical without feeling like broad and out-of-place jokes.  Like Grace, this “journalist” uses baseless intuition rather than evidence to declare people guilty and then send mobs after them.  The film in many ways argues that, unlike what we see on shows like CSI, much of the legal system has less to do with forensic evidence than it does with perception and narrative.

Of course perception and narrative also play a big role in the film’s flashbacks as well which present a pretty bleak view of Nick and Amy’s marriage and perhaps of marriage as an institution.  At its heart this marriage appears to have been a classic case of couple of people who put on their best faces during their courtship and then found themselves playing a game of chicken once the honeymoon was over to see who would reveal their true personality first.  Nick had presented himself as a gregarious and loyal simpleton while Amy had presented herself as a chilled out “cool girl” when in fact the truth was a lot more complicated.  Nick was in fact a rather controlling individual who subtly insisted on everything going his way while Amy was a demanding and elitist snob who (despite insisting to the contrary) could not stand to present anything short of storybook perfection to the world.  It is in many ways the same story you see out of a lot of marriages… but with the consequences turned up to eleven.  The film paints a world in which posturing and deceit make up most of our social interactions and it was only when this became too much to bear that someone finally did something extreme to break out of that cycle.  The film doesn’t provide any easy answers about marriage and gender relations and isn’t interested in fitting snugly within any political narrative or telling anyone exactly what they want to hear and there’s definitely some food for thought to be mined from it.

So, what is Gone Girl?  Is it a statement about the human mind’s rush to judgment?  Is it an expose about the weaknesses in the American marriage?  Is it a daring and modern salvo in the battle of the sexes?  Or is it maybe just a schlocky mystery that’s maybe been given a little more legitimacy than it deserves?  Honestly, this is one that I’m probably going to have to think about a little more.  It’s definitely a very well made and entertaining movie, one that’s clearly better than most of the stuff in theaters and that everyone should see if only to be part of the discussion, but there are definitely some problems and imperfections.  That being said, I had similar reservations about Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when I first saw it and most of those complaints seemed a lot more trivial to me when I revisited it.  I suspect that repeat viewings of this one will leave me similarly more confident of the film’s greatness or lack thereof, until then it’s going to have to settle for merely being a “very solid” in my estimation rather than “amazing.”

***1/2 out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Corpse Bride/Frankenweenie

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

Tim Burton is a director that has always been interested in the macabre, but unlike most filmmakers with similar tastes he’s never really been interested in making a straight-up horror movie. He ventures into R-rated territory occasionally, but even movies like Sleepy Hollow and Sweeny Todd haven’t really been “scary” per se. In fact, Burton has actually had a pretty long history of making films that are either for children or those who are children at heart. This is, after all, a man who got his start at Disney and whose first feature length film was an adaptation of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” In fact I would argue that Burton’s relationship with younger audiences is not unlike that of Steven Spielberg’s: both of them are in touch with a certain child-like imagination even if they aren’t necessarily always making movies that are meant specifically for young children, it just so happens that Burton’s inner-child is interested in darker and more twisted things. In fact you can get an interesting peak into what the young Tim Burton’s life was like by watching his first foray into stop-motion animation: the 1982 short film “Vincent,” which is about a brooding little seven year old who “doesn’t mind living with his sister dog and cats, though he’d rather share a home with spiders and bats.”

Burton’s most successful attempt to appeal directly to children was almost certainly his 1993 stop-motion animation project The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film which was actually directed by Henry Selick, but written, produced, designed, and shepherded by Burton to the point where his name was placed in front of the title. Marketers didn’t really know what to do with that film, and Disney (who had produced the film) felt compelled to hand over distribution of the film to their Touchstone arm for fear that it might taint their brand. The film made decent money on its initial release, but it was only afterwards when it came to home video where it really found its audience. Since then, it’s become a pretty big cult hit and something of a holiday tradition even among general audiences, but the people who really truly embraced it (and Burton’s other films for that matter) were what was typically referred to as “the Hot Topic crowd.” You know, people who you don’t really want to call “goths” (because it isn’t 1991 anymore) and you don’t really want to call “emos” (because it’s not 2006 anymore) but who still sort of share that sensibility. Yeah, those people ate that movie up and proceeded to litter the internet with their pencil drawings of jack Skellington. Hey, I’ve got nothing against it, finding a niche like that to worship you is an accomplishment in my book.

Anyway, Burton’s career as a children’s entertainer didn’t end there. A Nightmare Before Christmas may have been ahead of its time and the studios didn’t know how to market it, but they didn’t make that mistake again. Since then he’s been allowed to put his name on live action family films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, but the films that really seem to be the follow-ups to Nightmare were his animated projects James and the Giant Peach (another Henry Selick film, one that Burton seems to have less of a direct hand in), Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie. It’s those last two projects I’m going to be looking at today. Both were heavily anticipated to be the biggest cult hits since Nightmare and both got decent reviews and were given their share of awards nominations, but neither really captured the public’s imaginations and I want to see why.

Corpse Bride

Before I get too deep into Corpse Bride I should probably say a couple of words about the film it’s clearly living in the shadows of: The Nightmare Before Christmas. I actually saw that movie in its initial theatrical run when I was six years old and I think I liked it at the time but my memories are a bit hazy. It certainly wasn’t a movie I loved to death and felt compelled to own and watch a million more times… in fact I didn’t see it again until earlier this year when I gave it a watch as research for this piece. On a rewatch I found that I liked but didn’t love A Nightmare Before Christmas. It was a pretty fun movie with some charming puppetry and enjoyable songs, but it was also pretty slight experience without a whole lot of depth.  Still it was a fun little art project and I could see why people would like showing it to kids around Halloween.

Corpse Bride came out over a decade later and long after A Nightmare Before Christmas’ cult following had established itself and expectations were fairly high.  I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie was a huge disappointment when it came out.  It got fairly respectful reviews, it certainly made its budget back at the box office, and it even got an Academy award nomination for Best Animated Film, albeit in a weak and unusual year that didn’t have a Pixar movie, a Dreamworks movie, or a Disney movie competing for the award and in which none of the nominees were computer animated for what was first and probably last time (it lost to Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit).  If it had been a great movie it probably would have been in a good position to, like its predecessor, become a cult sensation.  That didn’t really happen though; the film is rarely talked about anymore and is practically forgotten by everyone but Tim Burton completists.  As such I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie.

The film is based on a Russian/Jewish folk tale about a man who, while practicing his wedding vows, accidentally finds himself married to a dead woman after slipping his wedding ring onto a what he thought was an inanimate object jutting out of the ground but was actually the skeletal finger of a woman who died waiting for her true love.  Where the traditional story ends on the jolt of the corpse coming to life, the film tries to stick around and see what someone in that situation would do.  It’s an appropriately macabre situation: our hero is a young man named Victor Van Dort in an unnamed 19th century European village who was being pressured by his parents into marrying the daughter of another wealthy family, but he suddenly finds himself in the middle of this crazy love-triangle with his original fiancé and the dead girl he accidentally marries.  In some crazy way this almost feels like an allegory for having an affair and getting the “other woman” pregnant.  Victor was wavering in his commitment to his fiancé and the next thing you know he has to take responsibility for the well-being of this other woman he doesn’t really know but who’s inexplicably linked to him because of something he did.  In a different context this is basically the same story being told in Usher’s “Confessions Part 2.”

It’s an interesting dilemma, but the movie starts to go wrong by populating the story with some fairly weak and undeveloped characters.  Victor is probably the biggest problem.  He’s a super soft-spoken clutz completely lacking in confidence and there’s not a lot to really grab onto with the character.  Maybe an actor in a live action movie would be able to make these qualities relatable and sympathetic, but that doesn’t quite translate in stop motion and Johnny Depp’s voice performance doesn’t really help.  Depp is actually kind of an odd choice to do voice over work, his appeal as an actor is almost entirely rooted in his physicality and to the way he commits to unconventional choices; he’s not really much of a talker.  The two female characters on the other hand just don’t really seem to have a whole lot to them.  Victor’s fiancé is almost entirely defined by the ways Victor jerks her around and the titular corpse bride is entirely defined by the way she’s stuck between two worlds.

The two worlds in the film are the world of the living and the world of the dead, and Burton perversely actually makes the world of the dead seem a lot more fun.  While the world of the living is rendered with all the bleak dourness you expect from a 19th Russian village, the world of the dead is a lot more colorful and filled with fun characters that sing songs and engage in gallows humor.  I get what Burton was going for with this, but it doesn’t really work, in part because he just doesn’t execute as well as he did when he and Henry Selick were making A Nightmare Before Christmas.  Where Halloween Town seemed to be brimming with creativity out of its every orifice, this world of the dead is actually kind of boring.  There are a couple of neat ideas here and there like a talking worm living the corpse bride’s eye socket or a brigade of singing black widow spiders, but it really wasn’t as fun as it needed to be.  On top of that, Danny Elfman’s songs here are not nearly as good as the ones in A Nightmare Before Christmas, not even close, and most of them are sort of slowly recited rather than sung with real panache.  In general this feels less like an interesting dichotomy between life and afterlife and more like an identity crisis for a movie that isn’t sure whether it wants to be its own thing or whether it wants to be A Nightmare Before Christmas 2 and I sort of wish that it had just picked a side because what humor is here kind of feels out of place and otherwise it just seems oddly quiet and downcast for a family film.

The one area where the film sort of improves on A Nightmare Before Christmas is in its stop-motion effects, which are definitely smoother and more cleanly constructed than they were in the earlier film.  This can probably be chalked up to a decade’s worth of technological advancement and an increase in budgetary confidence.  I’m not exactly sure about the details of how the film was made but I think the stop-motion effects were augmented by some CGI, but I’m not really sure where the line is between the two.  That said, one could even argue that this smoother look works against the film because it robs the film of the lo-fi charm that made A Nightmare Before Christmas so beloved.  I keep comparing these two films, which maybe isn’t fair, but I don’t really see how I couldn’t.  Corpse Bride completely lives in that film’s shadow and never really finds a way to forge its own identity, but its failure isn’t just based in its inability to fill that 1993 film’s shoes.  It makes plenty of its own mistakes and rarely inspires interest.  By the time it reaches the anti-climactic sword fight at its end the film has just been a pretty lifeless affair.  No pun intended.

Frankenweenie

When I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with the Universal monsters movies for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to explain.  I certainly liked the movies to some extent, but really what appealed to me were the monster characters.  My favorite was Dracula of course (my online identity would be very different if not for this youthful obsession), but I also couldn’t get enough of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man.  I liked the original movies of course, but I was plenty interested in seeking these monsters out in other mediums as well.  I don’t think I was alone in this either, these characters show up all the time in youth-based Halloween fun like breakfast cereals (Count Chocula), video games (Castlevania), boy band music videos (“Backstreet’s Back”), hell there was even an animated Adam Sandler movie about these monsters a couple of years ago.  This has been one of the few evergreen multi-generational pop culture interests for children going back to the Great Depression, and one of the many people influenced by them is Tim Burton.

One of Tim Burton’s very first professional projects was actually a tribute to Universal horror: his 30-minute 1984 short film “Frankenweenie.” This live-action short was produced during Burton’s tenure at Disney and was originally going to be attached to a theatrical re-release of the movie Pinocchio but that never really ended up happening and it didn’t really surface to the public until after he became a successful director.  The short isn’t exactly the most polished thing ever made but given that it’s essentially a student film with a slightly larger than average budget I think it actually holds up pretty well for what it is.  Burton apparently wasn’t content with it though because in 2012 he decided to revisit the project, this time in the form of a feature length stop-motion film made for forty times the budget of the original short.

I had expected the feature-length Frankenweenie to mostly be a remake of the short in name and concept only, but it’s actually a very faithful but heavily expanded adaptation that borrows characters and scenes from the short verbatim.  Like the short it is about a grade school kid whose dog is run over by a car and killed, who decides to use some lessons from his science teacher to resurrect the pooch from the dead in a way that is not unlike that of the original “Frankenstein.”  What’s oddly unique and interesting about both films is that it’s one of the few retellings of the Frankenstein story that doesn’t damn its protagonist for “playing god” and creating a monster, in fact it rewards him for his brashness and allows his zombie-dog to survive at the end without repercussions and continue to bring joy to his creator.  For the most part though, it’s just a cute little story about a boy and his (dead) dog.

Burton learned from the mistakes he made on Corpse Bride and made sure to make Frankenweenie very different from The Nightmare Before Christmas.  It isn’t a musical at all and while there is plenty of Halloween material, it’s presented very differently.  In the previous Tim Burton stop-motion movies the macabre elements took the form of sentient boogiemen that inhabited monster themed “worlds” whereas here the monsters are all creations that enter into the “real” world of the film and are then slain.  The other obvious stylistic difference it that Frankenweenie, like the short it’s based on, is entirely in black and white.  It’s a choice that makes perfect sense for the project given that it is a fusion of Universal horror movies and 50s suburban family sitcoms, which are both intrinsically associated with black and white, but I’m willing to bet it was not an easy sell for the money-men.  Like Mel Brooks before him, Burton realized that black and white is essential to any quality Universal Horror homage and he was willing to take the hit at the box office that it would entail.

So, which is better “Frankenweenie” the short or Frankenweenie the feature?  Well, I think they both have their pros and cons.  On one hand I feel like the feature film does need to struggle a little to fill time.  The second act is very elongated and at times the movie feels like it is stalling.  Victor keeps his resurrected pet hidden for way too long and then once the creature is finally revealed his parents come to accept it way too fast.  The meat of the Frankenstein story is supposed to be focused on how people react to the existence of the creature, not the buildup to its revelation.  On the other hand, the feature length version does a much better job of explaining why the neighbors react so violently towards Sparky.  In the short people freak out even though all the dog has really done is mildly misbehave, whereas in the feature there really is a lot of hell breaking loose and it does make sense that the townspeople would be pissed.  Speaking of which, the feature has more than one pet undergoing the resurrection experiment; we get a were-rat, a hamster mummy, a giant Godzilla-ish turtle named Shelly (get it, as in Mary), a brigade of mutated sea-monkeys, and a flying vampiric bat/cat hybrid.  I don’t know that this late film chaos really adds a whole lot to the overall story, but it’s mostly good fun.

Overall, I wouldn’t call Frankenweenie some kind of landmark family film or even an overly essential entry in the Tim Burton filmography, but the child inside me who loved the shit out of the Universal horror movies quite enjoyed it.  Critics seemed to agree with me on this point.  The movie didn’t necessarily receive rave reviews or anything but most critics respected it, especially when compared to Adam Sandler’s more commercial animated Universal Horror tribute Hotel Transylvania and the film received an Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Feature category (where it lost to Pixar’s Brave in a very competitive year).  The general public wasn’t so receptive.  The film didn’t bomb; it made $80 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, but it more or less came and went and didn’t really capture the zeitgeist.  That’s probably a factor of the black and white, or maybe a factor of its incredibly dumb sounding title.  Still, I think for what the film is, that isn’t so bad and I’m sure that Burton can still rightfully put the film in his “win” column.

In Conclusion

Is Tim Burton the animator as good as Tim Burton the live-action director?  Well, with the limited sample size we have to work with I’m going to have to say “no.”  All three of these movies seem to be flawed in one way or the other and the one that people seem to like the most is the one he had the least control over.  Still, I like that these movies were made.  They’re neat little side projects and they’ve definitely proven to be influential.  It’s not entirely clear where stop-motion would be today if not for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas back in ’93.  Would there have been a Fantastic Mr. Fox if not for Burton?  Would Aardman have been able to work with Hollywood if not for Burton?  Who knows.  Additionally, Burton paved the way for macabre elements and darkness into the realm of family entertainment.  It’s telling that Disney thought that “Frankenweenie” the short was wholly inappropriate for family audiences while they proudly released Frankenweenie the feature thirty years later.  Without Burton it’s unclear if something like Monster House could have been made, and god knows where the Laika studio would be today without Burton… but we’ll get to then in the next installment.