Thursday, May 17, 2012


Many feel that Tim Burton has become a bit of a one-trick pony; that the whimsical genius behind Big Fish (2003), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Beetlejuice (1988) has been replaced by a hack with a fetish for checks, swirls and Johnny Depp.  More specifically, Johnny Depp wearing white makeup and doing crazy things with Helena Bonham Carter sporting a crazy ‘do.  They also say that Burton’s typical weird world stories of monsters-that-are-misunderstood are becoming a bit of cliche.  They say that slapping on funny wigs and paint on actors with some creepy Danny Elfman music has been done and done and then done again in every single one of his earlier films.  Be it visual imagery or plot progression, we’ve seen it all (they say).
But allow me to make a case for Burton’s films.  Sure, most of them bear common motifs and trademarks, and many of them (Alice in Wonderland (2010), Planet of the Apes (2001)) cannot hope to be rescued by this apology but all his films are not cut from the same cloth, despite what popular opinion may claim.
Burton’s latest film, Dark Shadows (2012) has been accused of all of the above and panned universally.  Dark Shadows is about a rich philanderer, Barnabas Collins who philanders with the wrong girl, a witch named Angelique who curses him to an eternity in a box as a blood-thirsting vampire. He suffers for two centuries of painful solitude when he is accidentally released in the year 1972.  Imagine that.  To have to suffer the hell of isolation and and then to be subjected to hippies and disco.
Barnabas finds that even though they’re a bit low on fortune, his descendants have persisted in the grand old Collins manor.  But so has Angelique and her thirst for revenge.
The so-called Burton cliches of precocious children with a taste for the weird, Depp as an awkward fish-out-of-water fellow, Helena Bonham Carter in a funny wig and monsters with a heart of gold … are only what anti-Burtons see.  I saw one of the silver screen’s few vampires who is troubled by his eternal existence, who really feels the weight of the centuries on his shoulders, who grasps the meaning of “forever” and is terrified by the knowledge.  I saw Depp’s white face paint and anachronism, but I also saw a bloodthirsty creature unable to control itself.  I saw the beautiful Angelique who wasn’t a misunderstood monster… unless that is, you mistook her for someone who plays nice and doesn’t hold grudges. Even her ability to love is so gloriously twisted.  I saw Roger Collins, who uses his son as a lookout while he screws the coat check lady.  Or the quintessential Burton heroine, the sane-insane Victoria, who sees ghosts.  They’re a wonderful menagerie of well-developed characters, but do they make a wonderful story together?  Let’s put it this way: it isn’t the greatest epic story ever told or even Burton’s best film, but with the help of hilarious dialogue, AWESOME ’70s music that is surprisingly appropriate, Depp’s ability to get angsty without getting maudlin and some serious WTF moments, Burton weaves together an amusing Gothic soap opera that treats its characters with respect without taking itself too seriously.  It certainly doesn’t deserve the flak it’s getting.
That’s all very well, you say, but what about those very relevant criticisms levelled by Burton notfans?  To that I must ask you, are those criticisms REALLY criticisms or are Burton’s naysayers behaving like the pitchfork wielding townspeople in a Burton film, who don’t understand that it takes all kinds to make the world?  Yes, it’s a bit meta and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that we’re all actually characters in a Burton film and our supposed normalcy is the source of much horror and nervous mirth for an audience somewhere… but bear with me.
One does not say that Martin Scorsese is a one trick pony because of his numerous depictions of mafia, women in white dresses and overuse of Robert DeNiro/ Leonardo Dicaprio.  Many directors have this tendency of latching onto an actor and that shouldn’t automatically disqualify Tim Burton from among the most talented directors we have today.  Does anybody think that Raphael was a hack because he regularly milked the ‘soft shadows/ light reflective colours’ cow?   Well, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thought so, but nobody cares about them.
Artists have trademarks, artists tend to go back to things they have done before, to actors and muses they enjoyed working with, artists are constantly reworking and polishing their craft and yes, often fall back on things that have worked well in the past.  One can’t fault Woody Allen for making awesome, cerebral films about love and marriage and one can’t fault Burton for his desire to drag ogres and all manner of beings from the shadows and onto the silver screen. I mean, he is practically the latter-day J.M. Barrie.  If creaky, uneven stairs get your pulse racing and you are on first name basis with the monsters under your bed, then you will never tire of Burton.   If Edgar Allan Poe had to clamour for attention with  ’Go Jane, Go’, then possibly, you may not enjoy every one of Burton’s films.
Tim Burton has struck his colours and they are checks, spirals, fog and gorgeously warped monsters. If you don’t like it, then by all means follow the direction the bony, moss-covered hand is pointing at: it will lead you out of that creaky door (with a gargoyle for a knob) to the crumbling old, ivy-covered mansion and off the nearest wind-swept, brambly cliff.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Admit it.  You thought this film was going to be a self-indulgent Robert Downey Jr vehicle.  I was certain that Downey, being the most bankable star in the group would get all the limelight with some obligatory Scarlett Johansson cleavage and 30 seconds for everybody else. I expected bloated egos, one-upmanship between the A-listers, unnecessarily messy action sequences and a surfeit of CGI.  Ensemble casts can be tricky, especially when everybody in the ensemble has already had a taste of the top billing pie.  Either the actors stick around just long enough to pick up their cheques or they’re fighting each other for our attention.  Fortunately, this IS Joss Whedon we’re dealing with. A man who understand superheroes (The Astonishing X-Men) and how to bring it (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
After five films’ worth of teasers, The Avengers film puts together the biggest and badassiest of Marvel’s superheroes.  The covert organisation S.H.I.E.L.D. is attempting to harness energy from a mysterious object, the tesseract. The tesseract opens a doorway to Loki, Thor’s evil brother who arrives on Earth, bent on wreaking destruction with the help of his mindlessly evil alien army.   In the face of certain destruction of the planet, Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. decides to restart a once-abandoned scheme: The Avengers Initiative.  Abandoning that scheme was possibly the only sensible thing ever done by S.H.I.E.L.D.:  I mean, who in their right minds would put an angry/ strong green giant, a demigod of Asgard, a genetically engineered man from the 40s, a megalomaniac who hates playing by the rules and a couple of sexy assassin-spies in the same room and expect them to play nice?  Fortunately for us, S.H.I.E.L.D. values mega-awesome Iron Man v. Thor v. Captain America fight sequences over logic and prudence.
The best thing about this film is that there was none of that tedious origin stuff which is so popular these days because even superhero movies now have a chance at the Oscars.  Every single motif in the film: the heroes, the villain, the plot helper-alongers and the Macguffin are from previous films.  So they basically had to fill two hours with superhero banter,  well choreographed fight sequences and mind-blowing alien ship explosions. Check, check and CHECK! But action scenes aside, Joss Whedon and his screenwriters’ homework has paid off: they really understood their characters and their origins.  That said, the comic book references never became excessive or irritating. This film also managed to give far, far more depth to The Hulk than the two previous Hulk films combined. With all due respect to Edward Norton’s formidable acting prowess, Mark Ruffalo brought a Jekyll-Hyde facet to The Hulk which was never sufficiently believable in the 2008 film.  The allusion to the Black Widow and Hawkeye’s evil past gave their friendship depth without having to resort to exposition or flashbacks. Little touches like these ensured that no character (with however little screen time) went under-appreciated or underused.  Except for Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders):  Give that woman an ass-kicking role already!
I also can’t get over how excellent the chemistry between the characters was:  Everybody brought a different sort of energy to the group and managed to stand out without trying too hard.  Doubtlessly, Iron Man was the fulcrum on which the group turned and he got some very funny lines but most of them wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for his co-stars’ prowess.  The group dynamics evolved so naturally:  Captain America slipped into a leadership role which would never suit Tony Stark, who works better as that unbearably cool guy who regularly pisses everybody off.  The Hulk is the quiet guy in the background that everybody’s just a little bit wary of while Thor was largely relegated as the butt of all Tony Stark’s jokes but he got some sweet Mjolnir smashing scenes to make up for it.
My only not-quite-a-quibble-quibble is that Tom Hiddleston as Loki just didn’t pack enough punch, especially in comparison to the  superb development of the Avengers.  That said, I can see why they used Loki as villain and why it worked in this film.  Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)was among the first films to realize the importance of villains. Few comic book villains on screen have been as lovingly portrayed as Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.  The Dark Knight was almost entirely carried by Heath Ledger’s dramatic and terrifying performance.  But The Avengers didn’t necessarily need a deep and interesting villain because this film is not about that complex relationship between superheroes and villains. A non-charismatic villain worked perfectly in this film because it wasn’t so much aboutwho the villain was, but how a bunch of alpha dogs and lone wolves set aside their differences and came together to overcome their common foe.
Did Christopher Reeve and Adam West ever imagine that just a few decades after their campy, Good-versus-Evil films, this genre would evolve into something that would be taken seriously by critics?  I doubt it, but  the re-imagining of superheroes and the gritty realism that now defines this genre became inevitable after Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published and Tim Burton’s Batman films hit the theatres in the 80s.
Many have prophesied that the superhero genre is in its dying throes and Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film The Dark Knight Rises will be its swan song, but Marvel’s latest offering has proved that this genre still has a few rabbits in the hat.  Besides, if they made an Avengerssequel with Wolverine and Spider-Man joining in the fray, we’d have to come up with new words to describe the sheer levels of superbificenticity it would reach.