REVIEW: JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Justice League is a movie fans have been waiting a long time for and while it’s not the movie we’d hoped we’d get, it is still a lot of fun. Story finds Earth under attack from an ancient being called Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) who needs three powerful ‘mother boxes’ to come to his full strength and conquer the planet. Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are trying to put together a team of meta humans to join in the fight. They need to convince Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Barry Allen aka The Flash (a hilarious Ezra Miller) to unite with them to stop Steppenwolf in his tracks. But even with the heroes united, their only hope of defeating the titan and his army of pandemons, may lie six feet under in a grave in Smallville.

DC’s classic comic is brought to the screen by Zack Snyder from a story by he and Chris Terrio and a script by Terrio and Joss Whedon. Avengers director/writer Whedon was called in to finish post-production and handle re-shoots when a family tragedy forced Snyder off the project. The result is a film that is far from perfect, but is still a lot of fun. The film feels a bit incomplete despite a competent director taking over the project and it also feels edited down to the quick to get to the action faster. Ironically Batman v Superman was improved when material was added on blu-ray, but here they chose to go in the opposite direction and the film feels like it’s missing something. The first act seems particularly rushed and we really don’t get to feel the resonance of the search for the meta humans or Steppenwolf’s arrival. It all happens so quickly and it’s a bit choppy. Once the team is assembled and goes on the offensive, the movie is a lot of fun with the banter between our Justice League members being a highlight, especially from the wisecracking Flash. Their first battle brings the team up short and thus begins the quest to raise the dead, or at least one of them. Then it’s off to a fun conclusion that follows this series’ propensity for big CGI filled spectacle, but doesn’t quite seem as messy as the bloated, overlong Batman v Superman climax, in fact, it actually felt a bit short. The whole film does leave one wanting more, to be honest, but the camaraderie between the characters really goes a long way and there are some really fun dialogue and action scenes to make this an entertaining night at the movies, nonetheless. It’s not the classic hoped for, but DC is starting find it’s footing, at least in terms of tone. It kept that DC look and feel, but isn’t as gloomy or takes itself too seriously like some of the previous DCU flicks. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography helps the film appear consistent with previous entries and Danny Elfman provides the atmospheric score with some fun nods to previous hero themes.

The cast really help make up for some of the film’s shortcomings. Affleck is once again solid as Batman/Bruce Wayne. He’s a bit more upbeat here and he has some nice banter with his costars as the reluctant founder of the League. Gal Gadot once again proves she was born to play Wonder Woman and she has some nice moments, including some good chemistry with Affleck’s billionaire hero. Ezra Miller steals the flick as the sarcastic, slacker hero The Flash. He gets some of the best lines and his dorky charm fits the character perfectly. He also has solid chemistry with his co-stars. Ray Fisher is effective as the tragic, yet powerful Cyborg. He’s still learning how to use his powers and still conflicted over being Frankenstein-ed by his father and we sympathize. Jason Mamoa is good as Aquaman, but it seems his surfer-dude hero never really gets his moment in this flick. Maybe WB is holding back as James Wan’s Aquaman is the next DC flick due out. J.K. Simmons is good as Commissioner Gordon, but only has two or three scenes and Ciarán Hinds voices a somewhat imposing Steppenwolf, though he seems like just another CGI monster…but at least one with far more personality than Doomsday in BvS. As for other returning cast members, Amy Adams and Diane Lane ease back into their roles as Lois Lane and Martha Kent respectively, Irons is again perfect as the cynical Alfred and it’s no surprise that at some point Henry Cavill is going to show up…but the when and hows will be left for viewers to find out. A good cast that help get over some of the bumps in Justice League’s road.

In conclusion, Justice League still shows that DC has work to do, but at least has a fun time with it’s missteps. It does get a lot right, including some entertaining interaction between our heroes and some fun action scenes. It’s not as good a film overall as Wonder Woman, but in ways is more fun and takes itself far less seriously than MoS and BvS. The film could have used a little more time for us to appreciate the hunt for the heroes by Wayne and Diana and needed to give more weight to the appearance of it’s moderately effective villain. In all fairness, who knows what effects losing it’s director had on the final product. With Snyder away, did the studio play? Regardless of it’s issues, it’s still a fun romp that brings together some of the most famous comic book heroes of all time and even serves up, not one but two, additional scenes, one mid-credits and one post-credits…and the post-credits scene will have comic book fans talking. Go in with moderate expectations and you can have a real good time.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 heroes.

 

 

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: BEFORE I WAKE (2016)

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BEFORE I WAKE (2016)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

A couple who tragically lost their own child, Mark (Thomas Jane) and Jessie (Kate Bosworth), adopt young Cody (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), a boy who lost his mother (Courtney Bell) and has been bounced from family to family…even abandoned by the most recent one. The Hobsons soon find that Cody has a special ability, his dreams become real. At first they are enchanted as their home is filled with swarms of butterflies and visions of their dead son, Sean (Antonio Evan Romero). But, their wonder turns to terror as not all of Cody’s dreams are happy ones and a malevolent entity manifests through them into their home. 

While this may be director Mike Flanagan’s most generic film to date, his skill as a filmmaker makes it better than most of the recent PG-13 horrors that it resembles at times. Co-written with Jeff Howard, the script may be filled with familiar elements, but is given some really nice emotional weight by Flanagan and his cast and he also delivers what most of today’s cookie cutter horrors don’t, some legitimate chills and scares. Flanagan and his actors portray a heartbroken family who still haven’t gotten over the accidental death of their son. They have a chance to regain some of their happiness by adopting a little boy, who has had his own traumatic loses. This alone is well done and we feel for the couple and the boy and on it’s own would suffice as a drama of a special boy finally meeting the right family. But this is no drama, it’s a horror and Flanagan gives us a little boy terrified to go to sleep for visits from “The Canker Man” usually end in someone he cares about vanishing. When this malevolent entity arrives, Flanagan brings out the chills, just as he brings out some more Spielberg-ian wonder when Cody dreams of far more pleasant things, like butterflies and Sean. There is also a nice air of mystery as there is more to Cody’s story and whens it’s investigated, we get some surprising revelations about the boy’s past and who or what this entity is and why it haunts Cody. Again, the story elements may be familiar, like in Flanagan’s Hush, but the skilled filmmaker makes it work. Not everything is perfect. The film does get a little too sentimental for it’s own good at times and yes, some of the spooky imagery has become a little too commonplace in these types of horror to be fully effective. The story also gets wrapped up in a bit too neat of a nice little bow, but the film succeeds far more than it doesn’t. We also get some nice and atmospheric cinematography from Michael Fimognari and an equally effective score by Danny Elfman and The Newton Brothers.

As mentioned, the cast does solid work in support of Flanagan’s story. Bosworth and Jane are very good as the Hobsons. The pain of their loss is portrayed well, especially by Bosworth who’s Jessie is still in therapy and still having a hard time moving on. We almost understand when she manipulates Cody to see Sean again. Jacob Tremblay gives another good performance. We really like Cody and obviously feel sympathy for his fear of sleeping and share his fear when his malevolent dream demon appears. The film also stars Annabeth Gish as an adoption agent who knows a bit more than she tells the couple and Absentia’s Courtney Bell appears in a brief flashback role as Cody’s mom and is very sympathetic in the part.

Overall, this was an entertaining film from a filmmaker who has yet to disappoint. Even with some familiar material and with a lesser aggressive tone than his Hush or Oculus the film gives us some good chills and scares. It’s a film that is meant to be more mainstream friendly than his other work, but he still gives it an intensity and emotional depth most of it’s peers don’t have. Before I Wake may be PG-13, but it’s not aimed at teens like pretty much everything else these days. It’s also not perfect. It sometimes is a bit too familiar and a bit too sentimental, especially in it’s wrap-up. Even so, Flanagan gives us some solid entertainment that far outweighs the common elements that today’s generic horror movies parade out on home media and in theaters to the point of repetitive banality.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 butterflies.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: GOOSEBUMPS (2015)

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GOOSEBUMPS (2015)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

When his mother (Amy Ryan) accepts a vice principal job in Madison, Delaware, high schooler Zach (Dylan Minnette) is forced to move there with her from New York. He finds he has a reclusive and unfriendly neighbor Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) with a pretty teenage daughter named Hannah (Odeya Rush). When sneaking into Shivers’ house one night to check up on Hannah, who he feels is being imprisoned there against her will, he finds out that Shivers is actually famed horror author R.L. Stine. Zach also discovers that opening Stine’s original, locked manuscripts actually releases the creatures within into the real world. With evil ventriloquist dummy Slappy (also voiced by Black) accidentally released, the diabolical doll unlocks all the rest of the monsters into the streets of the unsuspecting town. Now Zach, Stine, Hannah and Zach’s new buddy Champ (Ryan Lee), have to somehow find a way to get all the monsters back in the books…books that Slappy is gleefully burning.

Goosebumps is a clever and fun family horror from director Rob Letterman from a script by Darren Lemke based on Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s story. It amusingly combines not only a number of Stine’s ghoulish creations, but involves the author himself in the mix. It’s never really scary, but it is a lot of fun, especially a scene involving lawn gnomes which evokes some of the best bits in Gremlins. The characters are all likable and while the scenario is played fairly seriously, there is a lot of humor added to the mix as our heroes battle a wide assortment of Stine’s creatures running rampant on this small Delaware town. To a degree it’s nothing new. We have seen creatures come to life from the written page before, but it is an entertaining movie with it’s heart in the right place and fans of Stine’s tales should enjoy the parade of his characters marched out across the screen. If there is any fault with that, it is that only a few of them get any more than a few moments of screen time with Slappy being the main villain with a few secondaries like a werewolf and a giant praying mantis. On a production level, while the CGI can be weak at times, Letterman has a nice visual eye, especially scenes set in an abandoned amusement park, and it is all photographed well by Javier Aguirresarobe. There is also a buoyant and spooky score by legendary composer Danny Elfman, which adds nicely to the atmosphere of spooky fun.

The cast all have a firm grasp of the nature of the material. Black is amusing as the reclusive and egotistic Stine and also gives voice to the villainous Slappy and the mischievous Invisible Boy. The young cast shine as Minnette, Rush and Lee all provide their high school stereotypes well, as the new boy in town, the adventurous girl and the eccentric sidekick respectively. They are all quite charming with Ryan Lee showing a flair for comedy and Minnette and Rush having nice chemistry together. It’s an example of a solid cast making the material work very well.

I had fun with this. It’s not a classic and I’m not all that familiar with Stine’s stories, but it was entertaining in the style of something like the 80s classic Monster Squad. It has some shaky CGI, but the characters it represenst do have some life and personality and the human characters are quite endearing, as is the cast. A fun night on the couch and something kids and Stine fans will probably have a good time with.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 Slappys.

Columbia Pictures' "Goosebumps," starring Jack Black.

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

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ARMY OF DARKNESS: The Director’s Cut (1992)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

I know some fans will disagree with me, but Army Of Darkness is my least favorite of the Evil Dead films. I was blown away by the intense and deliriously gory roller coaster ride that was the first flick and was never completely satisfied by the sequels which got lighter as they went along…though I have come to really enjoy them. Evil Dead was a blood and guts horror with a fairly serious and grim tone and by the time we get to AOD, it had become a supernatural Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Sure it’s a lot of fun and Bruce Campbell really has a blast with Ash, but I was always disappointed that Raimi abandoned the ferocity and bloodthirstiness of the original.

Story picks up at the point we left Ash at the end of Evil Dead II. He has been thrust back in time and has arrived in the Dark Ages where the deadites are terrorizing a land of feudal kingdoms. He is at first mistaken for an enemy by ruling Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), but his slaying of a deadite soon has him believed to be a long prophesied hero. Ash only wants to get home and to do that, he needs the Necronomicon. In true Ash style, he screws it up and now the armies of the deadites are descending upon the castle of his new allies. Can he defeat the army of darkness and save the kingdom of Lord Arthur, as well as, rescue the fair maiden, Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) who has caught his eye?

Putting aside the disappointment that might arise from this flick straying even further from the tone and gore of the first Evil Dead, this is a fun fantasy adventure with a twisted sense of humor. It does evoke the fantasy adventures of yesteryear, especially with some charming stop motion animation sequences that pay tribute to the works of Ray Harryhausen and some of his classics. The flick can get very goofy at times and sometimes it is a little too silly for it’s own good, as director and co-writer…with Ivan Raimi…Sam Raimi is a bit overindulgent in places, as he can be. There is little bloodshed and the film’s effects were modest at the time and some appear cheesy now by today’s standards…though there is a nostalgic charm attached to it as a result. There is a lot of action and one of the best sequences is a deliriously lunatic bit set in an old windmill with Ash battling a horde of miniature versions of himself. It is here were Raimi’s absurd camera work and overindulgence works and works well, not to mention the physical comedy of his star, Campbell. It’s one of the best sequences and the film never really reaches that fever pitch again. To add atmosphere, Danny Elfman and Joe LoDuca share scoring chores, while cinematographer Bill Pope gives the film an old fashioned fantasy adventure look. Obviously, as this is the director’s cut, this version features the far more bleak, yet more suiting to Ash, ending. It does work better, though the S Mart ending does have merit, too.

As for the cast, aside from Bruce Campbell, it is fairly unremarkable though Davidz is a lovely damsel, but doesn’t get much to do until she is possessed. Then the actress has some over-the-top fun. Campbell on the other hand, is in top form with both his sarcastic and overblown swagger, to his physical comedy and even outright heroics. Once again he creates a character who is both jackass and James Bond at the same time. Campbell doesn’t get enough credit for being able to walk a fine line between hero and buffoon and without a misstep. He really is very good at it.

Overall I like this movie, but have a hard time accepting it as one of the Evil Dead series, despite the involvement of Ash and having been led to this point at the end of Evil Dead II. It is a fun and sometimes very charming fantasy adventure with a twisted sense of humor at it’s center. It does get a little too overindulgent with the silliness at times, though it’s leading man successfully plays a character who is jerk, fool, hero and Romeo all at the same time…and not many can make that claim. It is well directed by Sam Raimi and there is cleverness in the script with brother Ivan, it’s just that it is as far removed from the original Evil Dead as one could get…and while that is somewhat refreshing, it also alienates it from the film it was spawned from. Thankfully, the recent Ash vs Evil Dead TV series returned us back to the over-the-top gore from the first flick without losing the sense of humor from the following two.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 chainsaw arms.

3 chainsaws

 

 

 

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HALLOWEEN FAVORITES: ED WOOD (1994)

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ED WOOD (1994)

Halloween Favorites is back and this Tim Burton classic is certainly a fun Halloween season watch when you need a break from decapitations, masked killers and lurking fiends.

Ed Wood is a twisted and funny film that delightfully tells the story of arguably the worst filmmaker in history, Edward Wood Jr. Johnny Depp plays the ambitious Wood whose passion for making amateurish sci-fi/horror movies by far eclipsed his actually talent. The film follows the wannabe director through the making of some of his most infamous flicks, like Glen Or Glenda, Bride Of The Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space and his relationship with an oddball assortment of characters, including a drug addicted Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), TV hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), wrestler/actor Tor Johnson (WWE’s George “The Animal” Steele), drag queen Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) and fortune teller Criswell (Jeffrey Jones). It also takes us into his equally odd personal life, including his relationships with wannabe actress Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) and his future wife Kathy (Patrica Arquette) along with his love for wearing women’s clothes.

This is one of Burton’s best films, as he directs Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script with healthy doses of respect and heart. While Burton has a lot of fun with Wood’s story and the making of some of his most notorious films, never at any time does he make fun of Wood, or treat the man with contempt. Wood’s life makes for a movie as strange and off-beat as one of his own productions and the director knows it and films the story in black and white and in the same whimsical style as if we were watching one of Wood’s films, only about Wood. The film is loaded with atmosphere, charm and a lot of entertaining and oddball bits as Wood certainly lived in his own little world and Burton takes us into it. Burton also captures the spirit of Hollywood in the 50s and and the spirit of a man who wants to break into movies and be remembered for his films…and he is…though not the way he wanted. The movie’s atmosphere is enhanced with Danny Elfman’s boisterous score and Stephan Czapsky’s sumptuous black and white cinematography.

The cast is fantastic, with Depp really having a blast as the goofy, cross-dressing amateur filmmaker. He gives him passion, a kind heart and wonderfully naive charm. He is only outshined by Landau who is truly incredible…and sympathetic…as the aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. The two have a wonderful chemistry together and make this odd pairing work. Lisa Marie and George Steele are perfectly cast as Vampira and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, who appeared in a few of Wood’s flicks. Jones is also perfect as the bizarre psychic Criswell and Murray steals every scene as drag queen and Wood associate, Bunny Breckinridge. As his love interests, Parker gives us a frustrated woman who gradually snaps at being drawn into the bizarre world her boyfriend lives in and Arquette is sweet and has almost an innocent quality, as the woman that would become Wood’s wife till he died in 1978.

This is a great movie about one of the worst directors of all-time. A man now idolized for his awful…yet, oddly very entertaining…flicks. The film chooses to focus on the more off-beat aspects of Wood’s life, while avoiding the subject of his depression and alcoholism, though it does not shy away from Lugosi’s. Burton chooses to make a more whimsical take on Wood’s life and that works very well considering how bizarre and surreal his films were. It’s a spoof, that never makes fun of it’s subject and never looks down upon this amusingly terrible filmmaker. A fun movie that indirectly captures the Halloween spirit far better than some films with more direct intent. Sadly, the film was a box office disappointment, but has developed a much deserved cult following and Lugosi did get an Oscar for his amazing turn as Lugosi.

-MonsterZero NJ

4 Woods!

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HALLOWEEN FAVORITES: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

This Tim Burton directed classic is another of my Halloween Favorites and I like to watch it every year at this time, when I want a bit of a rest from the more intense horrors, but still want something with plenty of Halloween spirit and all the trappings… and this film has both.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s script, from a story by he and Kevin Yagher, takes a lot of liberties with the classic Washington Irving tale, but is still a lot of ghoulish fun. This version takes place in 1799 and transforms Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) from a meek local school teacher to a meek NYC detective with an interest in forensic science that annoys his superiors, who have a much simpler view of crime and punishment. His belligerent attempts at waking his peers up to the new age of police work earns him a trip up the Hudson River Valley to the small, remote village of Sleepy Hollow where a rash of decapitations has the entire town wrapped in a blanket of fear as they are rumored to be committed by a headless fiend riding an enormous black steed. Upon his arrival, the skeptical Crane not only comes face to face with a very real headless horseman, but witches, black magic and a conspiracy of death and murder. Can Crane get to the bottom of who holds the horseman’s reigns and somehow keep his own head on his shoulders where it belongs?

Despite wandering greatly from the original The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s ode to Hammer horror films…with more than a few nods to the Universal classics…is, if nothing else, a stunningly spooky visual feast that oozes Halloween from almost every sumptuous shot of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. But Burton also brings dollops of atmosphere and a lot of spine tingling action, with a touch of fairy tale whimsy, as Crane overcomes his own fears to solve the mysteries around him and take on the supernatural head-hunting juggernaut. He also spatters the screen with a generous amount of the red stuff as we get quite a few beheadings, stabbings and slicings as the undead Hessian mercenary tracks down it’s assigned prey in Terminator-like fashion. And the gore FX are very well executed and there are only a few spots of CGI here and there to enhance the live effects occurring on screen. There is a great Danny Elfman score to add to the atmosphere and it’s all a great deal of fog-drenched, blood-spattered fun!

Burton also has a great cast to help him tell his tale. Depp is channeling his inner Peter Cushing as Ichabod Crane and he is a delight to watch as he takes his arrogant yet, cowardly police inspector wading into supernatural territory far removed from the comfort of his science. Christina Ricci is charming and pretty as both love interest and suspect, Katrina Van Tassel. She and Depp have a nice chemistry, though I do feel Ricci could have been a bit livelier at times considering how over the top the rest of the cast is. Miranda Richardson is perfectly cast as Katrina’s step-mother Mary and Michael Gambon is properly bombastic as her father and chief suspect Baltus Van Tassel. We also get Casper Van Dien as Katrina’s jealous suitor Brom, Michael Gough, Jeffery Jones, Ian McDiarmid, Marc Pickering and Christopher Walken as the Hessian mercenary whose loss of head creates a demonic legend. Add in cameos from Martin Landau and the great Christopher Lee and you have an almost perfect cast that gets the tone of the material ghoulishly well.

What can I say, I love this flick. It drips Halloween from every frame and while it may deviate from the classic tale considerably, it is a lot of bloody fun and it has a good cast that embrace the tone of the script perfectly. It’s a great flick to watch during the Halloween season, when you need a break from the more intense horror films, but still want a movie that has everything you want in a flick for this time of year. A really fun and deviously gruesome treat.

3 and 1/2 horsemen!

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE

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This week’s double feature is one that not only works perfectly but, is a lot of fun. It pairs Tim Burton’s first two films together, the hilarious and delightfully surreal Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the supernatural Gothic laugh fest that is Beetlejuice. Both films would introduce the world to Burton’s cartoonish visual style and have gone on to become cult classics in their own right. When stacked up against his body of work, they still rank as two of his best. So crack open your favorite beverage and enjoy this double bill of offbeat hilarity.
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PEE WEE’s BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman character became a sensation in the 80s. He started out as a more adult-themed comedy act and cable TV show and then became an all-out, though still pretty bizarre, hit children’s show. So, the transition to feature films was a natural and quirky new filmmaker Tim Burton was perfectly picked to guide Pee Wee to the big screen in this cartoonish and surreal adventure.

The plot is simple. Pee Wee’s prized bicycle is stolen and the strange man-child sets off on a cross country adventure to hunt it down and get it back. His travels lead him to some strange places, where he meets some equally strange characters as he follows a trail that takes him all the way to the Alamo and then eventually brings him to Hollywood.

Tim Burton was the perfect director for this project scripted by Reubens, the late Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol. It’s a colorful, yet bizarre, road trip populated by some very eccentric and equally colorful characters. And Burton’s Edward Gorey-ish visual style is perfect for the weird situations Pee Wee gets into such as his encounters with escaped convict Micky (Judd Omen), a rowdy biker gang, the phantom-like Large Marge (Alice Nunn) and the climactic chase through Warner Brothers Studios. Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman was brought in to score and his whimsical musical style was a perfect fit for the situations on-screen. Reubens, Burton and Elfman where so perfectly matched here, it’s sad the three have never, at least so far, collaborated again on another movie, unless you count Reubens’ small role in Batman Returns. Burton brings a sense of whimsy to the proceedings and has no problem indulging in the surreal such as two amusing nightmare sequences where Pee Wee fears about the fate of his bike. The FX are simple and quaint and even involve a little stop-motion animation and it adds to the film’s charm which it has lots of. It gives the film an almost demented fairly tale vibe at times, which fits the universe Reubens has already created for his character.

The cast have a lot of fun with this, too. Reubens is at his Pee Wee best and his reactions to things, such as his impatience with The Alamo tour guide, Tina are just as hysterical as is the broader physical comedy. 80s cutie and icon E.G. Daily plays the only, fairly down to earth character in the film, bike shop repair girl Dottie, who crushes on the reluctant Pee Wee. The rest of the characters are all cartoonish such as spoiled brat and bike theft suspect Francis (Mark Holton) and of course, Lou Cutell as Amazing Larry. And the actors all have a lot of fun with their over the top screen personas. Burton gets good work out of everyone for the gallery of oddball characters that inhabit Pee Wee’s world.

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a comedy classic and rightfully so. It’s delightfully offbeat and amusingly surreal at times and Burton was the perfect choice to bring Pee Wee’s off-kilter world to the big screen. The movie is incredibly quotable and I still laugh heartily when I watch it all these years later and it definitely is one of my all time favorite comedies. And if that makes me a geek, fine… I know you are but, what am I ?

3 and 1/2 Pee Wees!

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BEETLEJUICE (1988)

Burton’s sophomore feature teamed him with another comic icon Michael Keaton, in this tale that puts a spin on the traditional haunted house story by having the ghosts trying to remove the humans from their house and not the other way around and turning in desperation to the demonic bio-exorcist Beetlejuice (Keaton) for help.

The story has young couple Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) Maitland, living a peaceful life in their large house in a remote New England town… until a horrible accident brings about their premature demise. But, things get worse for the dearly departed couple when, as they try to adjust to their new after-life, their home is invaded by the new owners, the new age Deetz family, Charles (Jeffery Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and their Goth emo daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). With their gaudy interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) in tow, they begin to completely remodel the Maitland’s house. The ghostly couple try to haunt the new family out but, only wind up intriguing them and in desperation, they turn to the demonic entity known as Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to evict the Deetzes from their home. But, they have started to bond with Lydia and realize all too late that the funky phantom they have unleashed has a far more sinister agenda and becomes a far worse problem then the Deetzes and their plans to turn the house into a paranormal sideshow attraction.

Written by Warren Skaaren and Michael McDowell from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, this was another film perfectly suited to Burton’s gothic, offbeat visual style and his quirky sense of whimsy. Burton really gets to have some surreal visual fun with his presentations of the afterlife and in the design of some of the supernatural beings that inhabit it. His teaming with Keaton is also perfect as the actor gets to really chew up the scenery as the bizarre and slightly perverse Beetlejuice. The character comes across less an actual demon than your creepy, pervy, alcoholic uncle… on crack… and that’s kinda what makes it work. Keaton is completely over the top and it fits Burton’s over the top style directing style very well. While not all the bits work, most do and the film is not only flat out hysterical at times but, whimsically spooky at others. The climactic last act when Beetlejuice is loosed on the Deetzes dinner party and trying to wed Lydia so he can remain corporeal is an amusement park ride, almost literally, and it makes it worth the wait to see him finally and fully unleashed. The film also makes it’s ghost characters, The Maitlands, the only normal people in the movie which adds to the turning the traditional haunting premise on it’s head. The film is a lot of fun and Burton imbues it with some nice sentimental moments too. Here he still knew when to temper the outlandish with the subtle, something some of his recent films seem to have lost. The FX here are very inventive and not only include some very bizarre make-up and prosthetics but, some charming stop-motion animation as well. A time before CGI and it’s all the more charming for it. Despite a modest budget the quaint FX enhance the film’s atmosphere and add to the fun. Again Danny Elfman was brought into score and again his music fits the film like a spooky glove.

As for the human cast elements, despite not having as much screen time as you might think, it’s Keaton’s show and he takes the demonic ball and runs with it. He is completely and unapologetically over the top as the perverted and devious oddball demon that is Beetlejuice. He has a lot of great bits to chew on and while not every line is knee-slapping, Keaton gives them his all anyway and the film would not have worked so well without him. Davis and Baldwin make a very endearing couple of ghosts and they have a really great chemistry together and with Ryder. The fact that they are played as the most normal characters in the film adds to the charm and they both give very down to earth performances… pun intended. It really works as a nice contrast to the eccentric Deetzes and their weird friends and, of course, Beetlejuice himself. And as the Deetzes there is also a nice contrast here with Jeffery Jones’ more down to earth real estate developer and Catherine O’Hara’s delightfully eccentric new age sculptor wife. Add in the adorably gloomy Lydia brought to life by a cute, young Winona Ryder and the obnoxious and self centered Otho, made all the more amusing by a scenery chewing Glenn Shadix (who sadly passed away in 2010 due to injuries sustained in a fall in his home). A very well cast comedy with some very talented people doing what they do best.

I love this movie. Sure, not all the bits work and a slightly tighter script could have made it even more of a tour de force for the eclectic cast but, with Keaton creating an iconic character and some truly inventively designed otherworldly characters and sequences, you get a very original and now classic comedy and a film that is still, in my opinion, one of both Burton’s and Keaton’s best. A delight even close to 30 years later. Also features cameos by Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

3 and 1/2 Beetlejuices!

beetlejuice rating

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS

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Recently revisited these two classics and though they still cause controversy amongst Batman and movie fans years later, they are true classics whether you are for them or against them. I think they sit fine as their own series next to Christopher Nolan’s darker and more grounded films but, however, I did find that one of them has aged more gracefully then the other. It’s also my favorite of the two so, that might have something to do with it …

 

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BATMAN (1989)

Warner Brothers was trying to get a Batman film going for years with various directors attached and in various tones and with numerous actors sought for the lead from Bill Murray to Steven Seagal. But with the success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, the studio settled on Tim Burton as a new upcoming director and fans began to buzz with interest. When Burton announced Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton as his Batman, the interested turned to outrage, though the outrage calmed down somewhat as it was also announced that film icon Jack Nicholson would be his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The film was finally made and after years of waiting, I remember enjoying it upon seeing it opening night on 6/23/89 but I had some problems with it that kept me from loving it. With a recent revisit, I found those problems still haunt it and to be honest, it is kind of dated especially with the Prince songs, which I never liked being in the film in the first place. They totally contrast and work against Danny Elfman’s moody and gothic score. But I digress…

Batman opens with a mysterious bat suited figure thrashing two criminals on a rooftop and the subsequent investigation by hard-nosed reporter Alexander Knox (a completely annoying Robert Wuhl and a character that could have been totally removed without any effect on the story) and intrepid photographer Vicki Vale (a bland Kim Basinger). We also get a second storyline of mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) who is sleeping with crime boss Carl Grissom’s (Jack Palance) girlfriend (Jerry Hall) and Grissom knows it. Grissom sends Napier on a job which is actually a set-up and when the police arrive, so does ‘The Bat” and Jack winds up shot in the face and falling in a vat of chemicals. The Joker is thus born, but so is a hero as The Batman (Michael Keaton) is secretly orphaned billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man who is avenging the murder of his parents by taking the criminals of Gotham head on as his masked alter ego. And with the Joker planing to ruin Gotham, he and Batman are fated to collide. But Wayne and Joker are also fated to collide too, as both men set their sights on the beautiful Vale…

And that plot element brings me to one of my first and biggest problems with Batman and that is the love triangle (quadrangle?) between Vale, Wayne, Joker and Batman. Not only does it not really work, but it provides some of the worst written scenes/dialogue in movie. The film stops dead for two scenes in particular when the Joker come to woo Vale and I never bought that the Joker would throw aside and endanger his nefarious plans, just for a girl… at least in how I see the character. That and Bassinger is just boring as Vale and one wonders how it would have been if Sean Young hadn’t been injured and lost the role. But this is also the product of the really weak script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren that was reported to have been continuously tweaked throughout production. The script continually stops the already weak plot…The Joker messing with hair and beauty products? That was the best ‘evil scheme’ they could come up with for the greatest comic book villain of all time?…to pay attention to this subplot and takes the iconic Joker and Batman characters and makes their disagreement over a girl, like this was a John Hughes high school movie or something. At least Keaton shocked the world by being a great Batman and he gives this film a lot of the weight it has. He makes a brooding and mysterious Dark Knight and a perfectly aloof and eccentric Bruce Wayne. He even retains his dignity in an awfully written scene with him trying to explain his double life to Vale with an intrusion by The Joker. There is that ‘Vale’ factor again. As for Nicholson, despite what appears to be perfect casting…and I know I’ll get flak for this…Jack’s Joker is a mixed bag. He goes from dead-on threatening, such as the infamous “Wait’ll they get a load of me” scene, to just plain goofy and silly. I do understand that the Joker’s tone did change from dangerous psycho to goofy clown over the years in the comics, but the movie needed to pick one. I don’t know if it was Jack being overindulgent or Burton mishandling him or a product of the script, but Nicholson’s Joker is all over the place. He fails to solidify the proper threat and menace to make the character a solid villain as there are times when he appears to be a little too demented and silly to get away with his plans. He has some really effective scenes…his treatment of Alicia (Hall) is the kind of cruel streak the character needed a bit more of to remain frightening…but they are totally sidetracked by his sillier moments, but in his defense, and I can’t say this enough, the script doesn’t give him the best material to chew on. And as Burton isn’t always the strongest storyteller, so maybe Jack just winged it from scene to scene.

And as for Burton, he is a great visualist and this film has a sort of grimy Blade Runner meets 1940s detective thriller look to it. The storytelling here is weak, but it is said the script was sometimes changed without the director’s knowledge, so not sure if the film’s weakest moments are totally his fault. There were apparently a lot of hands in this pot and that’s why the following sequel seems more like a “Tim Burton” film then this one. All it’s flaws aside, this movie is still endearing to me. Keaton is great and would get even better in the improvement of a sequel. There is a lot of fun action and when Jack is on, he is a delight to watch when he gives his Joker the appropriate menace and isn’t sabotaged by some bad dialogue or cartoonish behavior. I wish he had been given a better story then hair and make-up tinkering, but this is what we got. The film has a classic score by Danny Elfman and a very underrated performances by Michael Gough as Alfred and his scenes with Keaton are magic. Put all four of this era’s Batman flicks together and Gough is the jewel of this uneven series. The Phantom Of The Opera-ish climax is also a lot of fun and The Joker’s last scene might ironically be one of the most fitting scenes for the character… always having to have the last laugh.

So, in conclusion, despite a lot of flaws and the signs of a tumultuous production, the movie still has  a lot to entertain and certainly has it’s charm, especially now that it’s aged somewhat…though not as gracefully as we’d like. And as my idea of Batman and his Joker were better portrayed by Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I can now let this movie slide on a few of it’s issues as it is no longer the only film on the subject. Also stars Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent and Tracey Walter as Joker’s top henchman Bob.

… as a final note, it’s kind of interesting that I’ve read where Tim Burton has been said to say he finds the movie boring and proclaim that it’s not a great movie. I agree it’s not a great movie, but it isn’t boring and will always be regarded, even by me, as a classic despite it’s flaws. These statements only give more substance to me of the notion that this film was not totally his and there were a lot of cooks involved in the bat soup which may explain why many aspects of the production are so uneven.

3 bat signals!

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BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

Now this was more like it! As for what I wanted from Burton’s first Batman, this sequel is a lot closer to it. The film feels a lot more like a ‘Tim Burton’ film and a lot of the problems from Batman, have been eliminated or fixed such as booting the Vale and Knox characters and having a more consistently sinister villain and a far livelier and sexier leading lady… and no Prince music to date the film like last time…And for the record, I think Prince is a musical genius and has some great tunes, but they don’t belong in a Batman movie. The story is still not the strongest…none of this era’s Batman movies had strong plots…but it makes up for it by strengthening a lot of other weaknesses including a more gothic look and a snowy Christmas setting with a bit more of a devious sense of humor.

We start out with the wealthy Cobblepot family (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure vets Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger) welcoming a new baby boy into their family…an unfortunately deformed baby whom they proceed to send a la Moses sailing off down a creek in a basket. The basket sails into the abandoned Gotham City Zoo and down into the sewers beneath where it is greeted by a group of penguins apparently left over from the zoo’s closure. Cut to over three decades later as Gotham is battling a new criminal element and there are urban legends of a ‘penguin man’ stalking the sewers of the city, and now that he’s established as a hero, the apparently useless Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) calls upon the Batman (Michael Keaton) to combat these problems. Meanwhile unscrupulous businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is scheming to construct a power plant that will actually steal power from Gotham and is forced to throw his shy secretary Selena Kyle (Michelle Pheiffer) out a high rise window when she stumbles on his plans. But all these characters and stories are destined to clash as the criminal gang is actually run by The Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is the vengeful, deformed outcast son of the Cobblepots and he tasks Max Shreck to help him get his revenge on the city that abandoned him. Miss Kyle is resurrected, in a scene that evokes the Japanese horror flick Kuroneko (1968), by the touch of some stray cats and emerges as Catwoman, yet another vengeance seeking individual with chaos and bedlam on her mind. And the one thing they all have in common…none of their plans can come to fruition without the elimination of The Batman. The only hitch is that Batman and Catwoman may have found soul mates in each other just as the emotionally scarred Bruce Wayne has with the equally damaged Selina Kyle. But will the feline femme fatale side with the caped crusader or join the other villains to do him in?

Burton may not be the strongest storyteller but he does far better guiding this one then the last. Maybe it was less interference from producers?…a less demanding actor as his lead bad guy?…or that Daniel Waters’ script is a vast improvement over that last film’s. Either way this flick is a lot more fun, while retaining it’s dark tone. It seems to move faster and despite it’s complicated story and numerous characters, seems to flow a lot better in the context of the telling of that story. The characters all seem to fit together better, especially Keaton and Pfeiffer whose scenes together both as Wayne and Kyle and their alter egos are a delight to watch and crackle with a sexual tension that was completely absent in the last film’s romantic pairing. They are also far better written and have some nice crisp dialogue between the two especially with Batman and Catwoman’s love/hate relationship. While it may be debated that Walken’s villain is one too many, his scenes with all three leads are amusing to watch as he basically seems to be playing everyone for his own benefit and also seems quite amused with himself that his partners in crime don’t see the wool pulled over their eyes or his thinly veiled contempt for them as he does it. Keaton is even better here as Batman/Bruce Wayne and seems to be more relaxed in the role and while he is still a wounded soul, I dare say his Batman here is enjoying his superhero role a little more now that his is out of the shadows and an outright hero instead of an outlaw. He works well with all the cast especially recreating the magic between Batman and butler with Gough’s wonderful Alfred. As for DeVito, his Penguin is a grotesque and sinister creature that instills discomfort and menace. He is having a blast with the role and is far more consistent with his portrayal then the all over the place performance Nicholson gave and this helps establish his character more solidly. Penguin may not be as quite iconic as The Joker, but in my opinion DeVito is far more successful in his portrayal than Jack was in his, because he picks a tone for the demented and sly Oswald Cobblepot and stays with it. It may also help that he has a better script and a director who is not having his script changed underneath him like last time. Pfeiffer is simply hot and spicy as the kitten with a whip that is her Catwoman. She is adorable as the shy and clumsy Selena Kyle and then is delightfully hot as the twisted and sexy villainess. She and Keaton have a wonderful chemistry together and make good use of the witty dialogue between them. She also has some fun scenes with DeVito, whose creepily horny Penguin would like nothing better than to get into her vinyl catsuit.

The production on a whole seems more relaxed. The budget is almost twice what the first film’s was and Burton goes with a more gothic look with less pipes and girders and more stone and castle-like architecture and the colors are less rust and rot with more blues and cool grays to accent his cold weather suited villain. The first film looked appropriately grungy, but here it more ‘Transylvanian’ and he makes good use of the snowy winter setting to present a beautiful snow swept city in contrast to the dirty dark sewers in which Penguin calls home. There are some fun action scenes too and the film benefits from the larger budget with better FX and model work. Even back in the day, some of the model work in the first film’s cathedral scene made me wince. Danny Elfman returns to once again composes a wonderfully fitting score. The two Batman scores are among his best work.

All in all, Batman Returns is a better film in every way and it’s a shame the studio decided to change direction in the next film and go with Schumacher who treated the next two Batman films like a gaudy burlesque show complete with bat nipples and gratuitous latex covered ass shots. Keaton sadly but wisely walked away as the next two films went from neon drenched car wreck to neon drenched train wreck respectively. Odd that the studios wanted the films to be lighter and more family friendly yet, Schumacher gave them far more of a kinky sexual subtext then the darker Burton films and were ultimately less successful.

3 and 1/2 bat signals!

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