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. 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. 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. 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.

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) horsemen!

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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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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: KURONEKO (BLACK CAT) (1968)

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KURONEKO (BLACK CAT) (1968)

As Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is part of my MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature this weekend, I thought I’d review this 1968 Japanese chiller that I strongly suspect had an influence on the iconic scene of the resurrection of Selena Kyle/birth of Catwoman…

Kuroneko is a spooky 1968 Japanese ghost story that tells the tale of two women, young wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) and mother-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa), who are raped and murdered by a group of rogue samurai. As their bodies lay in the ruins of their burned home, a single black cat comes and licks their corpses…a scene that I feel inspired Selena Kyle’s resurrection in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns…and the two women become vengeful spirits who lure samurai to their doom and drink their blood. The story becomes complicated when young samurai Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), who’s sent to deal with the supernatural killers, turns out to be the son/husband of the two murderous specters. Can he destroy the spirits of those he loved most despite their evil ways…and can they resist their thirst for vengeance and blood and not kill him?

Kuroneko is sumptuously filmed in black and white with some very spooky visuals and a very atmospheric style by Kaneto Shindo. His knows how to create tension with his camera and his visual and editing style, at times, evokes comparisons to more contemporary filmmaker David Lynch, although more restrained. His actors perform very well, his two female stars help Shindo achieve a successful blend of the supernatural world and the living when the ghostly women interact with the flesh and blood characters. They are menacing at times and sympathetic at others. Shindo switches story elements from horror to supernatural love story and back to horror for the climax, without disrupting the narrative flow and his actors keep up with him to the full benefit of the story and thus those watching. A very spooky and unusual, but ultimately very satisfying ghost story.

Rated 3 (out of 4) black cats!

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