Sunday, February 24, 2013


Frankenweenie (4.5/5)

            There’s been a lot of chatter over the last decade or so (at least since his Planet of the Apes remake) claiming that Tim Burton is washed up, out of the game, finito.  For a long time it was easy to dismiss these naysayers as nostalgia worshipers, people who hold their childhood experiences so close to their own hearts that nothing can compare to the movies they loved at age thirteen.  On the one hand, this chorus of doubters conveniently ignores the fact that during Burton’s supposed period of decline he somehow managed to direct Big Fish and Sweeny Todd, two of his absolute best films that pull Burton’s bag of tricks into new territories.  But after the dual duds of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows it has become increasingly difficult to ignore these doubters.  Where Dark Shadows was inoffensively mediocre, Alice in Wonderland stands as perhaps Burton’s worse film and yet simultaneously his most successful at the box office (AdamSmith you have failed us). 

Frankenweenie, which is based on a live action short film Burton directed while working for Disney, could have gone one of two ways: it could have drawn an unflattering comparison between the Burton of old and the Burton of the new millennium, or it could have showcased a talented director going back to the well and delivering up some of his old magic.  I’m happy to say that Frankenweenie is much more the latter than the former.  Unlike Planet of the Apes or Alice in Wonderland, which felt like a Burtonesque paint job was hastily plastered onto someone else’s movie, Frankenweenie is a wonderful encapsulation of Tim Burton’s obsessions with surprisingly little regard to audience reception.  Like the best family films, Frankenweenie brazenly straddles the line between heartwarming and offensive.

At its core Frankenweenie is a basic retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic monster tale with the mad scientist of Switzerland switched out for a bunch of suburban kids.  The main character is even named Victor Frankenstein in one of several subtle and not so subtle allusions to classic monster movies.  But Burton is far less interested in gothic literature of the 19th century than he is in b-movies of the mid-20th century.  In typical Burton fashion, Victor is an awkward outcast who has a love of science but no real friends except for his dog, Sparky.  When Sparky one day gets loose from his leash and gets hit by a car, Victor is naturally despondent.  But after a lesson by his equally strange science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, on the affects of electricity on dead animals, Victor decides to resurrect his beloved dog. 

Much of Frankenweenie plays out like Tim Burton’s love letter to Tim Burton.  It feels almost as if he too is performing a type of conjuring act, resurrecting his old self for one more film.  The movie is a loving assemblage of b-movie tropes and allusions, from analog mad scientists to Japanese kaiju.  A good number of the references will likely go over the heads of the younger set.  And the dark humor Burton and his team find in the concept of a walking, rotting corpse often comes across as a lighter version of Cronenberg’s body horror.  But these choices are refreshing because they show us that Burton is making this film largely for an audience of one: himself.  Perhaps the most audacious creative choice was the fact that the movie is filmed in black and white.  It’s difficult enough to release a film for adults in black and white anymore, much less one that’s ostensibly a family film.
But of all the movie’s characters, the one that interested me the most was Mr. Rzykruski, voiced by Martin Landau who previously turned in one of the best performances of his career in another Tim Burton joint, Ed Wood.  I often have a problem with Hollywood’s depiction of teachers in films.  Too often they come across as self-help gurus (see Dead Poets Society) or they are tasked with saving inner city youth (see Dangerous Minds).  Rarely are films interested in teachers who, you know, actually teach their subject.  We only see Mr. Rzykruski a few times, but judging by his classroom demeanor, he is interested in little more than showing his class how the world works.  There are no gimmicks.  For him, science should be interesting enough.  Later in the film, the parents come together in a meeting to denounce what he is teaching in their school and demand that he resign.  Rzykruski takes this opportunity not to defend himself, but to in insult the parents and condemn them for being so ignorant. 

This scene is in-keeping with Burton’s distrust of the public.  Think of the moment in Edward Scissorhands when the community starts turning on Edward or how easily the Penguin manipulates the people of Gotham in Batman Returns.  In Burton’s world, the public is always one little push away from becoming an ignorant mob.  This depiction of a teacher who stands up to the parents of his pupils is also refreshing in a culture that has decided to lay all of society’s problems at the feet of public school teachers (see Won’t Back Down).  If only teachers would listen to politicians and meet the demands of largely arbitrary testing criteria, then all of our economic and social ills would be solved.  But here Frankenweenie clearly tells the parents to get out of the way of teachers and let them actually teach. 

For anyone who has pined for the Tim Burton of old, then Frankenweenie should be refreshing.  Most children’s movies provide rather routine pabulum as life lessons.  Similar to The Nightmare before Christmas, a film that was about failing at your life goals, Frankenweenie doesn’t trade in easy lessons.  Perhaps the movie’s message could be best summed up by Victor’s father who tells his son, “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.”  I think we can all agree that this is both an unconventional message in a children’s movie and that as a statement it is largely true.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2/5)

            Ah, the joys of poverty.  It’s really a load off when you don’t have to worry about being shackled to a job, or having to please your boss, or accumulating an excess of money.  The fortunate poor can spend their days getting in tune with nature or drinking with a few of their best friends.  Who needs money when mother earth seems so willing to spontaneously generate grains, potable water, and livestock?

            At least this seems to be the message of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the type of movie about a poor community in the South that could only have been made by a member of the bourgeois from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is an insidious film.  It purports to be about people struggling to make it in the world, but it’s actually about the urban elite’s desire to take a camping trip, get away from the hustle of the city, and maybe go canoeing. 

            The movie doesn’t take place in our world, not exactly.  Instead the movie attempts to craft a world of magical realism where a large scale ecological disaster can unfreeze giant boars and where crushing poverty is a choice rather than a failure of the economy.  And yet at the same time the film wants to be about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans’s underclass.  It would be easy to claim that the movie can’t have it both ways—that it can’t be a fantasy world that also grapples with difficult real world problems.  But of course that’s just not true.  Plenty of movies have delved into the world of make believe in order to get a better perspective on real world events.  The problem is that Beasts just doesn’t do this very well.

            Beasts’s protagonists is Hushpuppy, a girl about nine years old who lives with her drunken abusive father in a place called the Bathtub.  In what’s assuredly one step removed from images of the noble savage, the movie portrays the denizens of the Bathtub as self-sufficient people who love drinking, dancing, and fireworks.  Their world is eventually upended when some sort of environmental catastrophe ends up flooding the Bathtub and everything else below a series of levees.  While a number of people choose to pack up and leave before they get hit with the flood, Hushpuppy and her father decide to face the storm head on, and they eventually hold up with several other men women and children who also refused to leave their homes.  Even after the flood they appear to manage pretty well until, that is, a group of faceless government agents apparently borrowed from E.T. come across these survivors.  The last residents of the Bathtub are taken to a hospital where they are forced to get medical attention and Hushpuppy even has to wear a dress.  But Hushpuppy and her folks haven’t given up yet.  They organize a prison break of sorts, which, as far as I can tell, consists mostly of pushing over several doctors and nurses who seemed uninterested in chasing them down in the first place.

            If we are going to read this narrative as a corollary to New Orleans after Katrina (and the film seems to invite this reading), then there are a number of problems.  Where the film shows Bathtub residents choosing either to flee or wait out the storm, a large majority of New Orleans residents had no such choice.  Many people stayed in New Orleans prior to the storm because they did not have the money, the transportation, or the accommodations to get out of the city.  To represent this as a clear choice, and, furthermore, to suggest that those who left were running away like wimps (not the film’s preferred choice of words), is at best lunkheaded and at worst offensive to those who died during Hurricane Katrina.  Later the film suggests that Hushpuppy, her father and the rest would have been fine if the “gul’ dern gov’ment” hadn’t gotten into their business.  The central problem after Hurricane Katrina wasn’t too much government—it was that the government had essentially disowned an entire city.  In fact, the people of New Orleans had difficulty getting any substantive assistance from their own government for a number of days.

            I could go on about the film’s uneven handling of alcohol, its narrative failures, and total lack of characterization beyond Hushpuppy.  But because my mother taught me right, I’ll end by pointing out a few things I liked.  The visuals are at times striking (even if a little too reminiscent of those pretentious Levi’s ads).  Quvenzhan√© Wallis turns in a great performance in the lead role, especially considering that she has to pretty much carry the entire movie.  I admit that I enjoyed watching her run around and yell like an animal.  And the giant boars were pretty cool.  Maybe next time the director should include more giant boars.