Saturday, September 26, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Wanted: The Super Friends" (1978)

Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom use a “dream machine” to control the will and actions of the Super Friends. 

Under the influence of the dream machine, Superman steals the gold from Fort Knox. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin commit a “strange crime" (!) at the U.S. Mint.  Also, Flash steals the Crown Jewels of the U.K, while Black Vulcan raids King Tut’s tomb, and Wonder Woman steals fine art from the Louvre.

Once the Super Friends realize what they’ve done, they turn themselves over to the authorities, but that action, too, is part of Luthor’s strategy to conquer the world.  Once they are in jail, their cell is launched on a collision course with the Sun.  Then, Lex uses a "mutation ray" to turn the world's human population into doppelgangers of Bizarro and Cheetah.

“Wanted: The Super Friends” is the first episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), the Super Friends variant that is my favorite for one reason: The Legion of Doom.

The other variants of the series feature didactic life-lessons, magic tricks, safety instructions, and morality tales for children, but -- dispensing with all that -- Challenge of the Super Friends pits the DC Justice League against a diabolical mirror image in the Legion of Doom.

Besides, the Legion acts from of the most awesome villainous headquarters ever: a giant, rocket-powered Darth Vader head. 

When I first saw that HQ, at eight years old, I knew I was hooked on this superhero series. I would have done anything, at that age, to have a play-set of the Legion of Doom base.

In broad strokes, Challenge of the Super Friends features the “thirteen of the most sinister villains of all time” battling against the Justice League, which, as in previous Super Friends series, operates out of the famous “Hall of Justice,” responding to “Trouble-alerts" from across the globe.

The thirteen bad guys, introduced in this episode are: Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, Sinestro, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy, Cheetah, Brainiac, Grod, Black Manta, the Riddler, Toy Man, Giganta, and Scarecrow.  It’s a great and colorful rogue’s gallery, and one that represents variety of villains from DC's Valhalla. The rights could not be acquired for Joker, or the Penguin, but strangely, that's okay. It's nice to see Scarecrow and The Riddler, get a little more action than usual.  My favorite villain, at least in terms of appearance: Black Manta.

In terms of the heroes, the series features Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, The Flash, Green Lantern, Apache Chief, Aqua Man, Hawkman, and Samurai. Neither Wendy and Marvin, nor the Wonder Twins, are featured. And that may be another reason why I prefer this series to the other Super Friends iterations. It’s straight up superhero action, and down to business, without the goofy comic relief.

Of course, the central problem with the series is that if you are a fan of the “modern” or contemporary Justice League of America, you will find the DC superheroes here quite toothless and generic. Batman isn’t the Dark Knight in this iteration, and Aqua Man is not the long-haired, hook-handed, angry character of the modern age, either.  

All the heroes, in terms of character, are largely interchangeable. They are distinguished only by their specific powers, not by any personality differences. They all love justice, and they are all "good."  That's about as deep as the characterization gets.

The stories are also largely free of any attempt at scientific accuracy, and stick rigorously to a predictable formula. In every episode, the Legion of Doom comes up with some new device to threaten the world, and plans to use it. 

The villainous strategy succeeds, and the Super Friends are defeated. 

However, the Super Friends manage to turn the defeat into a victory, and capture the Legion of Doom. But before the story ends, Lex Luthor uses some trick to free himself and his comrades from custody, while the Super Friends note, almost dogmatically, that justice will always carry the day.

Virtually no episode varies from this rigorous structure. “Wanted: The Super Friends” is no exception, although it does feature a novel early section which spends a lot of time introducing the Legion’s individual members.

In terms of scientific flaws, this episode sees the Super Friends launched into space in a jail cell…toward the Sun. 

Can Batman and Robin breathe in space, and survive without pressure suits? Here, they clearly do. This is one of the aspects of the series that drives me crazy. The characters will sometimes name-check physical qualities like "gravity" or the need to breathe air, but then are depicted traveling in space in just their uniforms, and sometimes at warp speed equivalents.  I accept this with Superman or Green Lantern, or on an understanding day, perhaps even Wonder Woman. But Batman and Robin?

Also, bizarrely, in this episode a 1970’s satellite is equipped with “mutation rays” that transform everyone on Earth into duplicates of Bizarro and Cheetah.  It is just completely nonsensical and anti-science.

Also, the Super Friends are depicted as being so advanced here that it would seem impossible to beat them. At one point in this story, Batman tells Alfred to bring him “another nuclear power pack.”

How many does he have? And if he's such a powerful and good superhero, why isn't he tending to the energy needs of the globe?

Finally, this episode features a line that, with no exaggeration, recurs in every episode of Challenge of the Super Friends: “That’s what you think!” 

Indeed, there are two lines to expect in each episode of Challenge of the Super Friends.  First is “That’s what you think!” And secondly is Robin’s exclamation of “Holy…something.”  Here, he says, “Holy coincidences, Batman!”

One element of the episode that I enjoy, by contrast, is the moment in which the individual characters are seen in their individual environs: Superman at the Daily Planet (as Clark Kent), and Batman and Robin in the Batcave.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Burton Binge: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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

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

Widely recognized as an example of "gorgeous filmmaking," (Rolling Stone), Sleepy Hollow was lauded upon release for its lush production values and colorful, autumnal imagery.  Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, for instance, aptly termed the film a "visual seduction." 

That's an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film's persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history.  It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegaic about the world it creates: the last spell  perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film's nature.  Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand.   As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting -- and wonderful -- moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood. 

The joke is not only an example of inside baseball, so-to-speak, but an indicator that Burton has fashioned his entire 1999 film as an homage to the output of Hammer. As Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin write in Flickipedia, the director “continues his unique, idiosyncratic, and very personal career project: to re-experience and revivify the toy chest of pop-culture effluvia that sustained him – and many of us – through our ‘Nam era childhoods.” (Chicago Review Press, 2007, page 21.)  

Or, as Wesley Morris wrote in The San Francisco Examiner: "what Burton does perhaps better than even Steven Spielberg: transport you to a nook in your childhood, be it around a summer campfire or smack in front of a TV set on a Saturday afternoon."

In the visual language of a Hammer Studios film then, the impressive Sleepy Hollow asks its audience to contemplate the nature of life on Heaven and Earth.  Is science the key to understanding it?  Or is there room, yet, for magic in this world?  In scenes both lyrical and poetic (particularly those involving Lisa Marie as Ichabod's mother), Burton's Sleepy Hollow seeks the answer.

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

"It is truth, but truth is not always appearance."

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

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

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

"The millennium is almost upon us..."

Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s. 

Not only does this film feature familiar horror actors from the Hammer stable, including Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, it is also, like the works of that studio, largely set-bound, and it embodies a similar, heavy sense of Gothic romanticism. 

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

Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film's canvas: "Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, "Sleepy Hollow" creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds."   Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)

Crane has put his faith in technology and reason, and believes that “to detect the guilty” science is the best tool.   He disdains the fact that he seems to be the only one "who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques."

That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysicism) is the real thematic terrain of the film. 

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

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

Though whip smart, knowledgeable and clever, Ichabod suppresses his own “natural gift,” the one handed down to him by his mother: his capacity for belief in something greater than the resources and wonders of man’s mind. In this sense, one might gaze at Sleepy Hollow as a tale of one man’s spiritual, even religious, awakening. Crane comes to see that he can't depend on science alone, but also must understand the rules of magic; on his instinctive sense of wonder. 

And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie's dialogue about nature vs. supernature.  The  Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast.  Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane.  The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges.  His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words  Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

Uniquely, Ichabod's journey may also be a reflection of how cinema (particular the horror cinema) had grown cold and clinical in the 1990s.  This was the era of 1,001 police procedural horrors, roughly (The Silence of the Lambs, Jennifer 8, Se7en, Kiss the Girls, Resurrection, Copycat, The Bone Collector, etc.) and such films reduced the great act of "monster"-hunting to a science, a forensic science.  

Ichabod is clearly in the mold of such CSI-styled investigators (nay a progenitor of their mold...) and yet in the end it is not forensics that saves the day in Sleepy is the investigator's natural gift, his ability to countenance magic.  One might easily see this conceit as Burton's embedded critique of the increasingly stale take on horror at the turn of the millennium.  With its beautiful fairy tale forests and deliberate Hammer Studio artifice, Sleepy Hollow seems a deliberate and almost elegeic throwback to an era of imagination and theatricality instead of gritty psychological realism.

At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually "bewitched by reason," and that comment perfectly captures the film's questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation.  And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film...undeniably one of his finest.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Burton Binge: Mars Attacks (1996)

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

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

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

Yet despite such apparent flaws, Mars Attacks! works effectively as a diabolical subversion of the Hollywood blockbuster format (see: Independence Day [1996]), and simultaneously as a commentary on American political life, circa 1996. Specifically, the alien Martians as depicted by Burton are a kind of joyful physical representation of Loki or Chaos.  They happily rip to shreds both the pillars of contemporary American political thinking (and PC thinking, specifically...) and the conventional pillars of Hollywood decorum.  

Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet...) you must destroy that village (or planet).  Everything from the Martian's bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why destroy when you can create?"

Mars Attacks! is based on Topps' popular trading card line from 1962, a perennial collector's item which featured some fifty colorful cards depicting Earth's invasion by nefarious, big-brained Martians.  

The Topps cards were a source of major controversy in their time for depicting Martians capturing and torturing human females. Much of the Mars Attack imagery also revealed brave American servicemen being burned alive ("Saucers Blast Our Jets"), frozen to death ("The Frost Ray"), bloodied, and otherwise abused by the sadistic Martians.

In Tim Burton's version of Mars Attacks! the imagery is arguably just as violent, but played in a much lighter vein.  

As the film's story commences, the world is taken by surprise when Martians land on Earth and prove not to be good-will ambassadors, but a wholly malevolent and destructive force.  

Although the President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson) again and again attempts to forge a peace with the alien invaders over the objections of his top General, Decker (Rod Steiger), the Martians persist in their all-out war on humanity.  

Finally, it is up to a shy teenage boy in Kansas, Richie (Lukas Haas), to locate the unlikely key to destroying the aliens: his grandmother's Slim Whitman records!  Once broadcast across the air-waves, the strange Slim Whitman performances pulp Martian brains and end the invasion of Earth once and for all.

If one bears any familiarity with the Mars Attacks card set, the first significant thing to note about the Burton film is that the handsomely-mounted production goes to great lengths to accurately capture the pulpy, 1950s/early-1960s vibe of the set.  It does so by visually aping a few of the more notable, specific cards.  

Cards such as "Burning Cattle," (pictured above)  "The Shrink Ray" and "Robot Terror" are all staged directly as action sequences in the film.  "Burning Cattle" actually opens the film, in a memorable scene set in Lockjaw, Kentucky).  

Meanwhile, another Topps card "Panic in Parliament" seems to be the direct inspiration for the Martian attack on both houses of Congress seen in the film.

Likewise, the card "Burning Flesh" reveals the full (disgusting) impact of advanced Martian weaponry on the human body; a perspective which is repeated (on Jack Black) in the film during the Martians' first landing in Nevada. 

Some of the more spectacular and bizarre card imagery is left deliberately unvetted ("Saucers blast our jets," "Terror in Times Square,") and the film also wisely avoids staging several Topps cards which shifted the focus from the Martian invaders to giant, overgrown hazards to mankind's domination of Earth (giant flies, giant spiders, giant tidal waves, etc.).   

The film incarnation of Mars Attacks! also features a different denouement than the card set.  In the cards,  the last act saw Earth man take his fight back to Mars, smash the Martian cities, and ultimately destroy the red planet.

Despite such notable differences, the movie version of Mars Attacks! does a fine job of bringing the imagery of the card set to vivid life, particularly in regards to the Martians, their colorful biology, their space age costumes and their wanton acts of violence.  These aspects of the film are delightfully and memorably rendered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, not a pretty picture in either case.

In the middle of all this turmoil stands an irresolute U.S. President who seems terrified to act one way or another, and keeps trying to contain the situation in decidedly milquetoast, half-measure terms.  Delightfully, this President isn't a jab at any specific Chief Executive in American history, but rather a lethal combination of at least three of 'em.  Nicholson's character boasts the cluelessness and affability of Reagan, the wimp factor of the first Bush, and Clinton's love of polls (to help him decide which way the wind was blowing.) 

As I noted above, the president's unfortunate character traits represent a lethal combination for the Earth in this situation. This President just won't stand up and fight, stating in PC-terms instead that the Martian bad behavior could be but a "cultural misunderstanding."  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contrarily, the director seems to have a good time demolishing national monuments.  In Mars Attacks! Mount Rushmore gets re-painted with a Martian (not Martin) sheen, and the Washington Monument gets tipped over upon a squad of helpless Boy Scouts.   These moments are emblematic of a diabolical vicious streak, and accordingly, Mars Attacks! comes across as Tim Burton's nastiest picture.  

And yet, simultaneously, by the end of the movie, Mars Attacks! writes itself off as a lark, breaking into song with Tom Jones and lunging full-bore into tongue-in-cheek laughs.  This is a daring and wicked, if precarious, creative combination.  I can't  really say it's a very commercial one, either.   

Think about it: Tim Burton spent over eighty million dollars to create a schlocky, big budget satire of a 1960s trading card franchise in the same summer that Independence Day premiered.  Talk about brass balls.   But his film is schizophrenic too.  It's a little too gory to go over as easy comedy, and much too comedic to be taken as a serious sci-fi epic.

Instead, Mars Attacks! occupies a weird terrain in the Burton canon.  It's a box office disappointment of tremendous invention but also scatter shot execution.   Really, Mars Attacks! is the Cannonball Run of alien invasion movies.  The movie is girded with recognizable stars and top-notch production values, occasionally uproarious, and yet strangely self-indulgent all at the same time.

But damn if those Martians aren't completely awesome creations.  Someone should give them their own TV series. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Burton Binge: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Technically-speaking, Tim Burton's 1990 hit Edward Scissorhands is structured as a myth.  In other words, it's deliberately a bed-time tale (told from a grandmother to her grandchild) that helps to explain some aspect of nature or existence.  

In this case, the book-end sequences in the film reveal the reasons why it often snows in one particular American town when, historically, it never snowed there before.

Beyond this unique aspect of the film's structure, Edward Scissorhands conforms to another long-standing tradition of mythology or folklore by explicitly conveying a message that is aimed at illuminating social aspects of the film's contemporary culture, meaning us, here, in modern America.  

In particular, the film serves as an excavation of not just another notable Burton outcast or misfit -- and perhaps his most memorable one at that -- but as a careful and moving indictment of a conformist dominant culture that is unable to accommodate an outsider's presence.  

Underneath the almost Dr. Seuss-styled surface of Edward Scissorhands, the movie serves as an indictment of racism in white America, particularly 20th century America.  Although colored in cheery, light pastels, the film portrays a 1950s era "traditional" America (down to character name choices like "Peg"), that reveals an alarming sense of homogeneity and parochial thinking.  In terms of history, this was the span in which segregation laws (or Jim Crow laws) were still on the books, though the court system was slowly beginning to change that fact.

Beyond the social commentary,  Edward Scissorhands is entirely persuasive as fantasy, with an opening composition that literally invites the viewer through a slowly opening door, into the domain of Burton's vivid and singular imagination.  The film also revels in Burton's familiar obsession with Rube Goldberg-styled inventions, and even makes some trenchant observations about parenthood, notably comparing two father characters: the inventor (Vincent Price) and Bill (Alan Arkin).

Haunting and emotional, Edward Scissorhands stands amongst of my favorite Burton films, in part because it features a deliberately unhappy (if emotional...) ending, and doesn't candy-coat its commentary in typical Hollywood bromides.  

In the end, the innocent and just Edward leaves the world at large, and his community too, but in notation of what has been lost because of his absence, some magic seems to go out of that world.   Except, of course, on the nights that it snows.  

That last wistful notation -- that idea that magic can exist in our life if only we allow it to do so -- is especially resonant, and a virtual trademark of Burton's aesthetic.

"You can't touch anything without destroying it!"

In Edward Scissorhands, a struggling make-up saleswoman, Peg (Dianne Wiest), leaves the safety of her suburban neighborhood to visit a Gothic mansion atop a nearby hill.  

There, she encounters a strange young man, Edward (Johnny Depp), who -- alone after the death of his father, an inventor (Price) -- now lives alone there.

Edward is unusual not only because of his gentle demeanor, but because he possesses long, sharp scissors for hands.

Peg brings Edward home with her to live in her family's house, and the neighborhood quickly begins to gossip about this unusual newcomer.   Seeking to fit in, Edward begins to work for the people of the town in different capacities (and all for free).  

At first, he trims their hedges into the shapes of animals and other fanciful creatures.  Then, Edward uses his skill with scissors to groom the neighborhood dogs.  Before long, Edward is giving the stay-at-home wives in the neighborhoods elaborate new hair cuts.

At first, a neighbor named Joyce (Kathy Baker) is aroused by the presence of Edward -- this "foreign" individual - in her humdrum, routine life, but when he refuses her aggressive sexual advances, she turns against him.  Then, the true target of Edward's affection, Peg's daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) involves Edward in a robbery at the behest of her obnoxious boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall).  Edward nearly goes to jail.

Even more than before, the town turns against Edward, leaving him no choice but to return to the lonely castle where his idiosyncratic inventor once lived.  Kim and and Jim follow him to this retreat, and Edward is left with no choice but to kill the violent Jim.  Kim, who has developed feelings for Edward, realizes that she has no option but to say goodbye to this most unusual man.  

Kim leaves Edward alone in his castle.  But years later, she knows he still lives -- immortal -- because it snows in town.  Edward creates the snow himself: cast-off shavings of ice from the elaborate sculptures he creates of his one true love...

"I am not finished."

A man with scissors for hands is certainly an original and unique creation, but Edward Scissorhands thrives as much on its depiction of Peg and Kim's pastel suburban world as it does from the singular nature of its title character.

In particular, Burton imagines a flat world in which all the houses and cars look exactly the same.  There are only four of five pastel colors to choose from, and the very flatness of the terrain -- lacking mountains and high trees -- suggest the two-dimensionality and conformity of the neighborhood, the culture and the denizens.

In particular, Burton creates for us a so-called "Googie" town deliberately evocative of  the popular 1950s design.  In other words, the houses that appear in the film conform to the architecture popularized in the 1950s and termed "Googie" by House & Home writer Julius Shulman.  These popular tract homes featured such elements as large windows, up-swept roofs, pastel color schemes, and on the interior, star burst wall-clocks. And you see all of these touches explicitly visualized in Edward Scissorhands.  The production design by Bo Welch thus specifically harks back to the 1950s, that time of racial conformity in the United States and not incidentally, the span of Tim Burton's youth.

Googie architecture was essentially mid-century modern in style, associated with the burgeoning space age and thus a spirit of can-do optimism.  But, counter-intuitively, Burton utilizes the Googie neighborhood as an indicator of the unthinking and yet visceral demand of the times to conform to the majority in terms of personal beliefs and mores, right down to choice and color of family homes.  What was designed to be an optimistic look at the "future" in America instead becomes here a signifier of the sameness of the people and their narrow or limited outlook on what it means to be a "real" American. 

When Edward enters this cookie-cutter Googie town, he is, at first, an object of curiosity.  Peg attempts to help him assimilate into the mainstream by modifying his facial complexion (with Avon make-up); so he won't, essentially "stand out."  He won't be noticed and thus derided.  Again, considering the metaphor involving racism in the 1950s, it's crucial that one note how Edward is made to change his skin color to be accepted in the neighborhood.

All the women (who seem to remain at home all day) gossip about Edward and desire to meet him.  But the only person who is cruel to Edward right from the beginning of his stay is the overtly Christian fundamentalist neighbor, who warns the neighbors that Edward is evil; Satanic actually.  And of course, this attitude also alludes to the 1950s milieu, and frequent white treatment of blacks.  In particular, black music was considered "devilish" and there was a terrible fear that the sexual, insidious music would infect upstanding white youths.  Even today, this ridiculous stereotype thrives.  How many U.S. Presidents, for instance, before Obama, have been widely termed the anti-Christ by religious authorities?

Still, Edward is welcomed into the homes of most of his neighbors, at least initially.  Importantly, however, it is in the capacity of worker or servant.  Edward tends to yards, grooms the dogs, and cuts hair.  He is, essentially, then, a harmless manservant able to do the domestic work that the middle class women do not wish to do.  He is fine as long as he knows his place and understands his role as a servant; as an assistant.

Importantly, the neighborhood goes from accepting Edward in this limited capacity to actually despising and hunting him (much like the Frankenstein Monster in James Whales' masterpiece) after he is accused of making a sexual advance against Joyce...a white woman.  Notably, Joyce is actually the one who made sexual advances upon Edward, after vocally fetishizing his "foreign-ness" or "difference;" wondering aloud what tricks he could do (or undo) with those sharp scissor hands of his.  But she turns the tables and blames Edward for sexual advances, and the town takes her word for it.

Additionally, whenever Edward makes mistakes or misunderstands the nature of his place in the Googie neighborhood, the more accepting whites among the town make paternalistic excuses for him, without actually considering how he was treated by those around him.  

"He can't help the way he is," says one character.  He must learn "not to take everything literally," says Bill.  In both cases, Edward -- definitively "the other" -- is blamed when things go awry. Fault cannot rest, apparently, in such a happy, pastel, Googie place.  Instead, fault must rest with the guy who is different; not in the response of the society to the guy who's different.  That's a significant distinction.

In the end, the neighbors run Edward out of town permanently, back into the dark, menacing Gothic mansion on the hill, a place where he apparently belongs as a non-white, non-conforming "monster."  This action thus represents the town's way of rejecting racial integration, and insisting on the separate status of someone who looks different.  It's an ugly display of parochial thinking, but also a once widespread attitude.

And yet, the film makes the case -- in the last act -- that the town has lost something beautiful by driving Edward away.  The magic and happiness he brought (diversity, perhaps?) has been sacrificed and lost.  Now, he occasionally bestows his magic -- the snow -- upon the town, but he is nonetheless forever apart from those who would benefit from his presence and particular skills.

The only man with scissor hands in the 1950s-styled Googie town, Edward remains quite the outsider and misfit.  His very touch is awkward and dangerous, and we see this quality clearly as he attempts to interface with Kim's family.  On his first day in town, he accidentally punctures with his scissor hands Kim's water bed, an act which on some metaphorical level suggests his implied/believed (sexual?) danger to the women of town.  By being different, he seems to be dangerous.

The social commentary about racism in Edward Scissorhands is a vital part of the film's creative tapestry, and yet Burton creates sympathy for the character by establishing his total sense of alone-ness and incompleteness.  "I'm not finished yet," Edwards declares at one point, and there are many of us who feel exactly the same way.  Like Edward, we are in the act of "becoming," of growing and turning into something.  Because of his poor treatment at the hand of the town's people, Edward does not become part of the community.  Instead, his destiny is to be alone.  What he becomes is...separate.

Tim Burton has occasionally stated that all his films come down to issues of parenthood, or fatherhood in particular. Here, Vincent Price plays the Inventor, a kindly man who created life, but was not able to perfect it before his untimely death.  In flashback scenes, we witness the old man's kindness, but also his desire to play God, to create a life and control it.  Although it is not his fault that he died when he did, the scientist becomes an absentee father figure, unable to help Edward countenance the world when the young man needs him the most.  

Notably, Bill -- despite some kindnesses -- also fails Edward at a critical juncture.  He is never able to turn the town back to Edward's side, and does not complain or object when Edward makes his final departure.  In both cases, the fathers don't seem to want to take responsibility for the son they have made.

One of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of Edward Scissorhands involves the climax, in which Edward creates a blizzard, a snow storm, from his perch high over the town.  Like the rest of the film, this denouement is highly symbolic, and emblematic of Burton's argument in favor of diversity and against conformity (or racism, particularly).  

For instance, some people believe that in the snow we see the reflection of God him (or her)self.  Snow is pure (like Edward) and incredibly individual: no two snow flakes are exactly like.  There is diversity amongst snow flakes and that's a good thing...for each is beautiful in its own way and evidence of God's ability create beauty in all forms.  By extension, Edward's differences from the rest of the folks in the Googie town should make him an object of beauty and reverence, not a monster.

At the heart of Edward Scissorhands echoes the belief that we need not fear that which, upon first blush, appears different from the norm.  Sometimes what is different can change our life for the better and make us see life in a totally new light.  

"You see, before he came down here, it never snowed," Kim explains to her granddaughter with a sense of wonder.  "And afterwards, it did."

Watching and experiencing Edward Scissorhands, you must decide if you want to be one of the villagers, trying to destroy that which appears different just because you're afraid of the new, or someone who regards the snow...and wants to dance in it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Burton Binge: Beetlejuice (1988)

Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) remains a perfect Halloween treat, a movie by turns ghoulish, garish, goofy, and giggle-provoking.  

The 1988 film was a huge box office hit when originally released theatrically, a fact which enabled Burton to assume directing duties on his blockbuster, Batman (1989).  

The comedy also spawned a 1989 animated series named after its titular character, a "bio-exorcist" played in the film by an over-the-top Michael Keaton. 

Never scary or frightening in the traditional sense, Beetlejuice plays throughout its duration like a cartoon come to vivid, three-dimensional life. Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for the film much (he felt it was gimmicky, like a TV sitcom) yet nonetheless cannily observed the overriding aesthetic as "cartoon surrealistic."  

Frankly, you can't describe the movie in better or more accurate terms than that.  Beetlejuice is both exaggerated in nature (like a cartoon) and utterly bizarre (hence surreal), a dazzling conjunction of the real and the fantastic. 

The masterful if deliberately quirky visuals are macabre indeed -- from shrunken heads to giant sandworms --yet this Burton movie doesn't play such brawny imagery for the inherent chill factor. 

Instead, as is often the case in the filmmaker's distinctive canon, the audience feels if though it has wandered into the fully-realized (and extremely personal) fantasy world of a highly-imaginative artist; one with a dark side, but also boasting a pronounced sense of, well...whimsy.

In terms of the particulars of the Burton Brief, we're back once more to the notion of outsiders bonding together to form a family of sorts, a quality we've already witnessed in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Ed Wood (1994).  Here, a couple of innocent (and child-less) ghosts played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin end up the "spiritual" parents of an isolated, vulnerable, goth girl, Winona Ryder's Lydia.  

Uniquely, this relationship is depicted as wholly symmetrical: Barb and Adam Maitland appear to learn as much from the young woman as she gleans from her experience with them.  It's a nice, folksy aesthetic, especially considering what the protagonists are up against in the scheme of things.

And what are they up against?  

Well, the protagonists and their latent misfit-ism run smack dab against two very negative characteristics of  real life: exploitative, avaricious people on one hand and an uncaring and byzantine bureaucracy on the other.  In particular, Lydia's Dad (Jeffrey Jones) and step-mom (Catherine O'Hara), the Deetzs -- much like Beetlejuice (Keaton) himself -- view the Maitlands as exploitable resources; tickets to personal satisfaction, embodied by wealth or celebrity. 

And in the halls of the Afterlife, the Maitlands find only hellish levels of barely functional bureaucracy.  The Afterlife is depicted as an endless maze of waiting rooms, foreboding cartoon architecture, "lost souls," and put-upon, uncaring civil servants.  People are encouraged to "take a number" and wait to be helped...forever.

Although Adam tells Barb that as dead people, they have little to worry about, that belief proves patently untrue in short order.  In the Great Beyond -- as in life upon this mortal coil -- success seems to belong to those who seek to leverage "the upper hand" in every situation, to utilize the movie's terminology.

Goofy and fun, Beetlejuice thus makes its case for family -- a social support net -- against the vast canvas of spectral officiousness and mortal narcissism.  An extended tour of the afterlife mid-way through the proceedings permits Burton's unfettered imagination to run wild, and his vision of a bureaucratic Great Beyond plays nicely against the idyllic qualities of the Maitlands' historic house and the pastoral New England environs.  

When Burton's idiosyncratic visual jokes and colorful paint strokes are combined with the movie's creative high concept -- the idea of a haunted house from the ghost's perspective -- Beetlejuice emerges as an inventive treat indeed.

"Maybe you can relax in a haunted house, but I can't."

Beetlejuice depicts the tale of a perfect American life ruined.  Adam and Barb Maitland live in a beautiful old house atop a hill in grassy New England.  But one day, things go awry and the couple dies in a car accident.  

They return to their home as ghosts, only to find there an incomprehensible, indecipherable and impersonal manual to their new existence: The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.

Soon, a new family, the Deetzs, moves into the old Maitland place.  Step-Mom Delia is a self-centered, narcissistic woman, and Dad is too busy conjuring ways to make money to spend time with his daughter, the alienated Lydia.  

Unwilling to share their beloved home with this cosmolitan but dysfunctional family from the city, the Maitlands set out to haunt the Deetzs.  It's not as easy as it sounds, however, and after failing to succeed, the Maitlands take the conceivably dangerous step of "hiring" a manic bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice to complete the job.

Although the Maitland's spectral case-worker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney) urges restraint, the Maitlands bring in Beetlejuice and a difficult situation immediately goes from bad to worse...

"I have a chance to teach you something here. You have got to take the upper hand in all situations or people -- whether they're dead or alive -- will walk all over you."

From a certain perspective, Beetlejuice is a literalization of the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Specifically, the film depicts three different levels of existence that, despite their differences, share something in common.   To wit, the production showcases life in idealized miniature (in Adam's table-top representation of the nearby town), life in the Maitland's

Beetlejuice -- a Loki-like force of mischief -- shifts constantly from one level of reality to the next, bringing with him chaos, uncertainty and, inevitably, disaster.  After he's through with them, not one of these levels of existence is safe or unchanged.

In whatever manner these three levels of existence (tabletop miniature, mortal life, and the afterlife) seem to differ from one another on a superficial nature, the more they are revealed to be precisely the same.  At various points, all three "fields" prove prisons for Adam and Barb, for instance.  

In all three levels, there are also rules to obey and follow (and if necessary, to manipulate).  That seems to be the point.  "Why don't they tell us something?" Barb asks at one point, frustrated.  "I mean, where are all the other dead people in the world? Why is it just you and me?"  In other words, the rules in any level of reality are not always clear.  

Commendably, the film's opening shot -- a pan up the hill to the Maitland's house -- reveals this quality on a visual level.  As the shot commences, we assume we are looking at a real landscape (and a real aerial shot...) only to recognize later that we are actually gazing at Adam's miniature world.  Full realization of this fact comes as a spider -- apparently a giant -- crawls over the model of the Maitland home.

Extrapolating from that tricky opening shot and the three levels of existence portrayed throughout the film,  Beetlejuice might be said to concern the ways that people navigate uncaring or at least difficult social systems.  People are either part of the establishment (like Juno), or work against the system (like Beetlejuice), taking advantage of its size and flaws.  

In between these poles are the regular people -- the Maitlands -- for whom the system does not always work. And yet they do not wish to entirely destroy the system, either.  More than anything, the Maitlands seem like good people trying to...understand a complicated tax code.  

They want to do right, but aren't sure how to do right.

The Maitlands are the typical Burton outsiders because these freshly dead souls are confused about the shape of their new  "lives."  They are vexed by both the living (the Deetzs) and the dead (the exploitative Beetlejuice). Left to handle their problems on their own -- without a usable guide, really, since their handbook resembles a "stereo instruction manual" --  they don't know where to turn.  Lydia is a lot like them in that way, boasting very different values than her yuppie parents.  She also doesn't understand who she should be.   This quality of "not knowing" is the thing that binds outsiders Adam and Barb, and Lydia together.

Meanwhile, both the Deetzes and Beetlejuice seem to live by Delia's advice (enumerated above) that people must take the upper hand in all situations.  In the final analysis, this is a lesson that the Maitlands and Lydia both learn, but in less-callous, less-thoughtless terms than either the Deetzs or Beetlejuice.  At the very least, the Maitlands and Lydia learn to look out for each other. Again, the focus is on a family, even an ad-hoc family, as the center of existence.

So what we have here is a (very) light social satire of the way things are.  One on side you have impossibly big bureaucracy, unable to tend effectively to the needs of the individual.  On the  other side, you've got individual hucksters and frauds such as Beetlejuice -- exemplifying  a laissez fair approach -- deliberately taking advantage of the individual.  In the middle are the regular folk, ones caught between an unworkable, officious bureaucracy and an unscrupulous character who might as well live by the motto caveat emptor.  

Or as the "ghost with the most" puts it: "These aren't my rules. Come to think of it, I don't have any rules!" 

For me, this is an especially intriguing reading of the film given Keaton's role in the drama.  After Beetlejuice, he appeared in a horror film entitled Pacific Heights (1990) wherein he performed essentially the same grifter-type role, vexing another married couple (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) by skirting and manipulating the law to his own selfish ends. Here the accent is on outrageous comedy, there the accent is on terror. But the commonalities are interesting.

In Beetlejuice, the Maitlands are truly trapped in limbo, between a rock and a hard place.  And yet in this positioning, they come to gain...perspective. "Being dead doesn't really make things easier," Adam tells a suicidal Lydia at one point, and that's just one grace note in the film,  the idea that avoiding a problem doesn't solve a problem.  The Maitlands, at first, leave Beetlejuice to freely roam their miniature metropolis in the attic, a plan of action that leads to his return and near ascent (not to mention ill-advised wedding to Lydia).  Finally, Lydia and Maitland join forces to actively stop Beetlejuice.  Once the family is whole (or on the same page) it can conquer the interloper, and does so, making way for the happy (and very domestic) ending.

Beetlejuice is loaded with creative invention, not the least of which occurs in its trademark scene of spiritual possession.  Here, the essentially harmless Maitlands use their ghostly powers to make the narcissistic city folk, including the Deetzs -- and Dick Cavett -- perform to The Banana Boat Song, (Day-O).  Spiritual possession as musical number is a good joke all on its own, but the film also garners laughs from the Deetzs's response to their spiritual slavery.  They love it!  They want to use it to make money, to enhance their reputations and wealth. "I didn't know I could do the Calypso" enthuses Delia. 

Coming in 1988 -- in the age of Gordon Gekko - this is surely a comment on yuppieism.  Even haunted houses are apparently a path to upward mobility.

In obliquely dealing with this idea, Beetlejuice emerges as a uniquely American fairy tale.  It's the story of ghosts who lost their home...but gained a daughter.  And that surely represents a triumph of traditional American values over the ideals of conspicuous consumption.  

Like all great fairy tales, Beetlejuice is also about the dark side of life, about a fate worse than death (the room for lost souls), about monsters at the door (giant sandworms) and about a system that doesn't really care if you succeed or not.  

Delightfully, Beetlejuice remains absolutely timely today, in part because its message resonates in the era of Occupy Wall Street, but also because Tim Burton did not apt for a strict adherence to realism in crafting his crazy world.  The special effects in the film have not aged dramatically because they are so expressive, so explicitly emblematic of a whimsical (if dark) nature 

But Beetlejuice works best as a reminder that the human predicament seems to be a constant.  Even in death, it seems, he has to claw, scratch, and fight to find happines.  And as in life, the thing that makes that effort bearable is the company of family. 

Like Beetlejuice himself, Burton's 1988 comedy "turns on the juice" and then "see what shakes loose," which, quite frankly, is more than you might rightly expect from a surreal, silver screen cartoon. 

Saturday Morning Flashback: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Wanted: The Super Friends" (1978)

Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom use a “ dream machine ” to control the will and actions of the Super Friends.  Under the influence of the ...