Films I loved in March 2019

31 March 2019
Destroyer

Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell in Destroyer

While rapidly approaching rock bottom, former undercover cop Erin Bell attempts to track down a sinister figure from her past in Destroyer. Nicole Kidman is astonishingly good as Erin, giving her character just the right amounts of toughness, pathos and despair to make her a classic anti-hero detective figure in this gritty hardboiled crime thriller, which delivers all the meticulous plotting, low-life supporting characters, sun-drenched cynicism and fury that you would want from a Los Angeles-set neo noir.

Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland is a devastating documentary about two boys who were allegedly sexually abused by Michael Jackson. The film looks in depth at the grooming process, the manipulation of parents, the coaching that resulted in the two subjects originally defending Jackson for many years, and the long term effect it had on the boys – now adult men – and their families. It also raises many issues about how children experience abuse and the way the law and public opinion often fail them. Streaming on 10 play.

Hotel Mumbai

Dev Patel as Arjun in Hotel Mumbai

Hotel Mumbai dramatises the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, focusing on the incidents inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras makes the film both a gripping thriller, as the audience follow the nightmarish experiences of multiple characters, and a moving tragedy about the senseless loss of life. Highlighting the actions of guests, hotel staff and police, it is also a sombre tribute to the extraordinary heroism by everyday people in an extreme situation.

Sometimes Always Never

Bill Nighy as Alan in Sometimes Always Never

As retired tailor and Scrabble enthusiast Alan, Bill Nighy delivers what is possibly a career-best performance in Sometimes Always Never. While being overtly stylised and theatrical, the film often unexpectedly resonates extremely deeply during its tonal switches from deadpan humour to something far sadder as it delves into exploring an estranged father/son relationship and the nature of loss and grief. This funny, charming and poignant film is a wonderful surprise.

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Dumbo

Tim Burton‘s Dumbo, which is a remake and expansion of the original 1941 Disney film, delivers everything I wanted as an unashamed Burton fan who adores the original. It’s Burton’s best live action film since he so fully embraced CGI at the start of this decade, and it’s full of the auteur’s trademark style and favourite theme of championing society’s misfits and outsiders who overcome adversity. It is also a very touching tribute to the bond between children and parents. This is cinematic comfort food for me!

The Green Fog

The Green Fog

The found footage film The Green Fog has recently been released on a handful of streaming platforms in Australia. Filmmakers Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson reproduce Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo through a super cut of clips from over 100 other San Francisco-set films and television shows. The result is something that most cinephiles will find utterly delightful, if for no other reason than for the playfulness and humour on display in the shot selection and editing.

Blaze

Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley and Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen in Blaze

The Ethan Hawk-directed Blaze, a biopic of the largely unknown American country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, is also now streaming in Australia. The film takes an unconventional approach to deliver a series of non-linear impressions of Foley capturing his contradictions as a musician of great talent who was also completely self-destructive. The real highlight of the film is the tender relationship between Foley and partner Sybil Rosen, who wrote the film with Hawk and is played beautifully by Alia Shawkat.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019
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Film review – Frankenweenie (2012)

25 October 2012
Frankenweenie: Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and Sparky

Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and Sparky

A crucial line in Frankenweenie about science working best when the experiments come from the heart as well as the head could very well be Tim Burton’s own admission that over the last decade or so many of his films were missing the sincerity and passion of his earlier work. Burton is one of the most stylistically distinctive contemporary filmmakers and while many of his films in the 2000s and beyond contain all the trappings of a Tim Burton film, the heart that was felt so strongly in his 1990s film was more often than not somewhat lacking. One of the many reasons that Frankenweenie is so glorious is that Burton has clearly poured his soul into what is his most personal film since his 1990 masterpiece Edward Scissorhands. Frankenweenie is not only one of Burton’s most pleasing films visually, but it is also a direct return to all his favourite thematic preoccupations. It is a tribute to the type of cinema and cinematic techniques that originally inspired Burton, while growing up as something of an outsider in suburban California during the 1960s and 1970s, finding solace in monster movies and animation.

Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is possibly the most overtly Tim Burton alter ego character to date. Like Burton when he was an adolescent, Victor is an introvert who prefers to keep to himself and make stop motion animation films rather than play baseball like his father wants him to. The production design for Frankenweenie combines the manicured lawns and landscaped gardens of the conservative America suburbs were Burton grew up, with an assortment of gothic flourishes capturing the horror film world that Burton submerged himself into. With its central storyline about Victor bringing his beloved dog Sparky back from the dead, the biggest visual influences on Frankenweenie are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). However, Frankenweenie is overflowing with references to other classic horror and science-fiction films, and part of the fun of watching the film is spotting those references, some of which are very specific while others are more general.

The most striking thing about Frankenweenie is its black-and-white stop motion animation, which gives the film a beautiful textured feel and is Burton’s best use of the animation technique (as director or producer) to date. It’s clearly a labour of love for Burton, which has paid off. The characters elicit genuine empathy and the bond between Victor and Sparky is touching. The short live action film of the same name that Burton made in 1984 is similarly impressive and affecting, but in this new version Burton has done much more so that this 2012 Frankenweenie seems less a remake and more an expansion. Very few details from the original film have been changed with Burton simply recreating his original scenes and designs with stop motion animation. Around these core scenes Burton has introduced several new elements, which work almost seamlessly with the remade 1984 content. Ideas, jokes, characters and relationships are all fleshed out and the results are wonderful.

One of the most interesting new additions is what is possibly Burton’s most overt political statement yet, in the form of a subplot involving Victor’s irrational neighbours. As the latest in a long line of Burton’s misunderstood monsters, the reanimated Sparky starts to create alarm in the community resulting in a fear and panic fuelled pack mentality. It is science the residents decide to blame for their phobias, specifically the teachings of Victor’s science teacher Mr Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), who despite looking fearsome is clearly a sympathetic character, as he resembles Burton’s idol Vincent Price. While the anti-science mentality is initially ridiculed for laughs it becomes more poignant when Rzykruski warns Victor about the strange distrust and fear Americans can have for science. Burton doesn’t labour the point, but in a handful of satirical scenes Frankenweenie very effectively comments on the ongoing devaluing of science, as expressed through creationism and climate change denialism.

With its anti-intellectualism critique, classic horror film homages and beautiful production design, Frankenweenie is a great film for adventurous young audiences. Similarly to the equally impressive ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) it combines humour, enjoyable scares, moments of wicked humour and genuine pathos. Not only does Victor feel like the character that Burton has most affinity with, even more so than Edward from Edward Scissorhands, but through Victor Burton seems to reconcile several lingering preoccupations. Burton’s dark humour is still present in Frankenweenie, but a lot of the repressed despair and anger felt in some of his other films has dissipated. It is especially notable that the adult characters, who either misunderstand Victor or act foolishly through ignorance and fear, are portrayed as having the ability to realise and acknowledge they were wrong and be redeemed.

Frankenweenie is about a dog that is brought back to life, but it is also about the human spirit and its ability to do incredible things when fuelled by the power of imagination, curiosity and not being afraid to sometimes make mistakes. These are key attributes for creative and scientific minds, both of which are celebrated in Frankenweenie.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Dark Shadows (2012)

10 May 2012
Dark Shadows: Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp)

Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp)

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is a strange blend of old fashioned humour, the director’s trademark gothic sensibility, monster movie and soap opera. While it doesn’t come close to early 1990s masterpieces such as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, it is Burton’s most perverse film since Batman Returns and his most playful since Mars Attacks!

Dark Shadows is based on a cult soap opera with supernatural themes, which ran from 1966–1971 and exists somewhere on the pop culture spectrum between Passions and Twin Peaks. Burton’s favourite leading male actor Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a vampire who after being buried alive for almost 200 years returns to rebuild his family’s fishing business. The film is full of Burtonesque characteristics including a blend of horror and comedy, being set in a strange gothic mansion on the edge of a seemingly normal community and featuring sympathetic monsters/loners as its heroes. While there is a mix of moods in the film, the humour for the most part is oddly successful considering how worn many of the gags are involving the film’s 1970s setting and the wacky behaviour of vampires. A lot of this is due to Depp’s performance, which is comparatively restrained and relies a lot on Burton making him resemble Count Orlok in Nosferatu with a strange haircut.

Dark Shadows is not only comedy and at times is almost feels like a post-modern parody of soap opera narratives where tone and focus shift dramatically. In terms of the film moving into moments of tragic romance story and sinister horror, this works fine but some of the radical narrative shifts feel suspiciously like poor writing. Most bewilderingly is the role of the family’s new nanny Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) who is introduced at the start of the film as the protagonist after the prologue. In the opening scenes the film hints at her mysterious past and strange insights, which suggests that she is a classic Burton misunderstood ‘freak’. However, once Bamabas enters the main part of the film she is almost removed from the narrative entirely to become a dull romantic interest on the side.

What is most curious about Dark Shadows is its peculiar representation of class. The Collins family is established as coming from a long line of inherited wealth that has delivered privilege and prosperity. The male head of the family Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) literally steals from the townspeople during a party and Bamabas has no qualms feeding off the working class and counterculture so long as his family are looked after. Conversely the film’s villain, the vengeful witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is a servant whom Bamabas had an affair with and is then cast aside. So far, Dark Shadows resembles any number of Disney animation features where a fiercely plutocratic ideology is promoted that sees the aristocracy and privileges classes as the good guys while members of the lower classes who ‘don’t know their place’ are the bad guys. What makes Dark Shadows different is that Burton is so gleefully wicked with this scenario.

Perhaps it is the commercialisation and mainstreaming of Burton’s gothic style that compelled him to make a nasty comedy in the guise of a dumb conservative film. Whatever the reason there is something gloriously irresponsible and vicious with how Bamabas is presented as the film’s charismatic hero despite being a mass-murder, somebody who all too easily falls into bed with others despite proclaiming he has a true love and so obviously possesses the despicable born to rule mentality. He’s a vampiric Patrick Bateman.

If the ‘hero’ of the film is so repugnant then that leaves the ‘villain’ to be the most sympathetic character and Eva Green does a wonderful job playing Angelique Bouchard with demented relish. She looks like a cross between Daryl Hannah in the Kill Bill films and Lisa Marie Smith’s Martian assassin in Mars Attacks! In terms of motivation and characteristics she resembles Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer who also stars in Dark Shadows) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) in Batman Returns since they are similarly the ‘evil’ characters who have far more legitimate complaints with the world than the very rich sociopath who opposes them.

While Dark Shadows is unlikely to win Burton new fans it contains plenty to satisfy his loyal followers who are content accepting that he proved himself over a decade ago and anything decent he does these days is simply good fun. Dark Shadows is not classic Burton, but it’s far from his weakest film and while Burton has never exactly been a subversive filmmaker, he is capable of being flippantly cruel. Underneath the anachronism gags, whimsical fairy tale flourishes and impressive special effects is a mean-spirited vision of the world that’s hard not to secretly take delight in.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Tim Burton: The Exhibition

29 September 2010

Into the Weird and Wonderful Mind of Cinema’s Most Popular Outsider

Tim Burton at Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Tim Burton at Tim Burton: The Exhibition

There are three defining aspects about the entrance to Tim Burton: The Exhibition that express the core ideas about the world of filmmaker Tim Burton. Running from 24 June to 10 October 2010 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Burton exhibition begins with you entering through a giant cartoonish monster mouth to go down into ACMI’s appropriately dark screen gallery. The big mouth is more comical than menacing, reflecting Burton’s love of both absurdity and horror. Violence in Burton’s films is often the punch line to a joke but always in a way that reflects the darkly humorous tone of classic fairy tales rather than any sort of post-modern ironic violence.

The next element you encounter as you walk into the Burton exhibition is a projection of a giant spiral with weird animated characters swimming through it. Not only is the animation something that could have come straight out of a cheesy-hypnosis scene from one of Burton’s beloved B-grade films of the 1950s and 60s, but it presents us with the idea that we are going into the vortex that is Burton’s subconscious and that is the subconscious of an adult man who still has a childlike view of the world.

Mars Attacks! artwork from Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Mars Attacks! artwork from Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Inside the actual exhibition you get a further indication of Burton’s dark and playful comedic style where several drawings indicate his lifelong obsession with the macabre and his morbid sense of humour. The clip playing from Mars Attacks! (1996) of the white dove of peace getting zapped by the aliens and the clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) where the animatronics attraction (which is clearly a parody of the famous Disney “It’s a Small World” ride) bursts into flames, are classic Burton. Both are wickedly funny scenes but both are also moments where something innocent goes horribly wrong. The Burton childlike view of the world is not all delights and adventure but something sinister too.

Another key element to the entry of the exhibition is the publicly displayed Batmobile from Burton’s Batman films. As one of the first things that visitors to the exhibition will see, the Batmobile reminds us that despite having pursued his very personal artistic vision throughout his career, Tim Burton is a bankable director and Hollywood success story. His films have broad appeal across mainstream audiences and the various subcultures that have adopted him. Burton’s playfulness, love of retro pop-culture, Gothic sensibilities and reoccurring themes of the outsider, problematic parental figures and concealed identity have resonated widely, making Burton one of the most popular and accessible of the auteur directors.

Screen EducationThis is an excerpt from an article printed in issue 59 (Spring 2010) of Screen Education. The full article contains a closer look at the entire exhibition and the reoccurring themes in Burton’s films.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s profile of director Tim Burton

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Through Tim’s Looking Glass

14 March 2010

The life, times and twisted tales of  Tim Burton, director of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Alice in Wonderland.

Tim Burton on the set of Corpse Bride (2005)

Tim Burton is a lucky man. While most other film directors have to choose between pursuing their personal vision or conforming to the commercial demands of Hollywood’s studio system, Burton has been able to do both. His dark, gothic fairytales – filled with freaks, outsiders and loners – are not the types of films that typically result in box office gold…and yet, somehow, they nearly always do.

Burton has always operated within the mainstream studio system, but has enjoyed an almost unheard-of freedom to pursue his strange, psychologically twisted stories of characters living on the fringe of society. A large proportion of Burton’s fan base certainly see something of themselves in the boy with scissors for hands, the traumatised masked avenger, the cross-dressing Z-grade filmmaker and, now, a 19-year-old girl named Alice who is at a crossroads in her life and doesn’t feel like she fits into society.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, derived from stories and characters in Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, promises to deliver exactly what Burton fans have come to expect from the iconoclastic filmmaker. Burton’s favourite music score composer, Danny Elfman, is on board, regular Burton actors Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as The Red Queen) are present, and the film’s lavish production design and hallucinatory special effects are all set to marvellously create the surreal world that Alice finds down the rabbit-hole.

After the dark and violent Sweeney Todd (2007), Alice in Wonderland is a return to the more family-friendly mode of filmmaking that Burton has previously favoured with films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). As well as Depp and Bonham Carter (to whom Burton is now married), Alice in Wonderland also features actors Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, and horror film legends Christopher Lee and Michael Gough.

Tim Burton directing Mia Wasikowska on the set of Alice in Wonderland (2010)

In the lead role of Alice is an Australian actor, Mia Wasikowska, whom Burton describes as having the quiet strength and old-soul quality that is necessary for his interpretation of Alice. As a young woman at an age of immense emotional turbulence, and in a time when the pressure to get married would have been very strong, a curious and adventurous girl like Alice would have felt detached from the world she lived in. Such qualities make her the perfect Burton protagonist.

Now 51, Burton grew up a bit of an outsider himself. The suburban landscape of Burbank, California, which he later parodied in Edward Scissorhands (1990), may have had the same stifling effect on Burton that Victorian society did on Alice. As a child, Burton was an introvert who sought refuge in darkened cinemas, watching horror and monster movie triple bills. Through these films, the young Burton identified not with the heroes or victims but, rather, the monsters whom he regarded as misunderstood.

Burton’s obsession with misunderstood monsters and outsiders will be on full display for Australian fans at the Tim Burton exhibition, which opens in June at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. Coming direct from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibition will include a collection of artworks and objects from Burton’s films, a full retrospective screening and public lectures by the man himself. Many of Burton’s drawings, paintings and puppets will be on display – going all the way back to the start of his career, working as an animator at Disney in 1979.

"Untitled" (Creature Series), Acrylic on canvas by Tim Burton, 1992

At Disney, Burton made a film that was dedicated to his childhood hero, the classic horror actor Vincent Price. Vincent was a short black-and-white stop-motion animation about a young boy who copes with his banal life by imagining he is Price, living a tormented life inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly a deeply personal work for Burton, the film was made more special when Price agreed to narrate it. Price and Burton became extremely close friends, with Price’s role as the Inventor in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands being the horror maestro’s last on-screen appearance (Price died in 1993).

At the age of 26, Burton was already known in the film industry as a unique and innovative voice. When Warner Bros. decided to make a feature film for Paul Reubens’ popular Pee-wee Herman character, from the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, they approached Burton. The childlike Pee-wee character and the surreal world he lived in was a natural fit for Burton’s feature film debut, which gave the world a taste of what was to come.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was the beginning of Burton’s long-term collaboration with film score composer Danny Elfman. While Elfman has many other credits to his name, including creating the theme music for The Simpsons, it is his work with Burton for which he is best known. Elfman has scored all but two of Burton’s films. and his use of lush orchestrations and choir vocals captures the combination of playfulness and dark undertones that visually and thematically define Burton’s work.

Burton’s follow-up film, Beetlejuice (1988), starred Michael Keaton as a malevolent bio-exorcist whom a recently deceased couple call upon to rid their home of the yuppie family that has just moved in. Beetlejuice established Burton’s dark comedic sensibility and love of fantasy. His warped vision of the afterlife and its macabre inhabitants were created through an inventive use of production design, special effects, prosthetics and stop-motion animation.

"Untitled" (Trick or Treat), Pen and ink, marker, and collage elements on board by Tim Burton, 1980

While some of Burton’s trademark visual flairs do appear in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, they are on display in force in Beetlejuice, especially his uses of striped patterns, weirdly angled frames, and coiled and twisted features of the natural world. Taking the dark, shadowed, oppressive aesthetic of German Expressionism and combining it with the anarchic dream-logic of Surrealism, Burton’s films are distinctively sinister and playful in their design.

Although Burton’s career had so far been successful, it was his treatment of Batman that really blew him into the stratosphere of Hollywood royalty. Long before Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman saga with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Burton gave birth to the modern superhero film with Batman (1989) and then its superior sequel, Batman Returns (1992). With Keaton starring as the tormented Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the first film, and then Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in the second, Burton’s Batman films returned mainstream credibility to superhero narratives.

While many credit Nolan’s Batman films for returning the character to his dark origins, Burton’s films were, at the time, seen to be doing the same, taking their inspiration from recent highly acclaimed comics by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (300). While keen to distance itself from the camp 1960s television series, Burton’s Batman films nevertheless combined macabre black humour with larger-than-life villains. His films also contained deep psychological insight into the fractured identities of its leading characters, and the way they reflected different aspects of Burton’s beloved loner personality.

Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990)

In between Batman and Batman Returns Burton made the first of his two masterpieces: Edward Scissorhands. It also remains Burton’s most personal film, in which one of the misunderstood ‘monsters’ from his beloved old horror movies has to face the prejudices and banality of suburbia. Edward is a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, whose inventor died before replacing the giant scissors at the ends of his arms with real hands. Burton cast Depp to play the lead role, starting their long director–actor relationship. Edward Scissorhands is a near-perfect film with its blend of romance, horror, comedy and satire; its extraordinary production design; Elfman’s glorious score and Depp channelling Burton’s childlike outsider persona.

After Batman Returns, Burton resurrected an old project that he began while at Disney: the stop-motion musical fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas. While being conceived by Burton and bearing his distinctive visual stamp, Burton ended up handing the film over to Coraline director Henry Selick, who brought to fruition the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who is sick of scaring people and becomes obsessed with Christmas.

Burton’s next project saw him reunited once more with Depp to make his second masterpiece: the biopic Ed Wood (1994), about filmmaker Edward D Wood Jr, who is widely regarded to be the worst filmmaker of all time. During the 1950s Wood made notorious clunkers such as the cross-dressing exploitation film Glen or Glenda (Wood himself cross-dressed), and the sci-fi horror film Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994)

Instead of ridiculing Wood, Burton’s Ed Wood is an affectionate and respectful film about a director whose vision and enthusiasm would not be dampened by any obstacles (including a significant lack of talent). Burton possibly saw a bit of himself in Wood as they shared a similar taste in movies, and both befriended a famous horror actor and gave them their last onscreen appearances (Burton with Price; Wood with the legendary Dracula actor Béla Lugosi). They were also both attracted to society’s fringe dwellers. Maybe Burton felt lucky that, unlike Wood, he was able to creatively refine and channel his visions into products that were embraced instead of reviled.

After Ed Wood, Burton’s films temporarily lost some of their edge, and for the late 1990s and early 2000s his films didn’t quite reach the same heights as his earlier work. His all-star 1996 flying saucer spoof, Mars Attacks, was a fun homage to the types of paranoid 1950s Red Menace films that Wood would have loved, but it was a one-joke film (though admittedly a very funny joke). Burton followed up with Sleepy Hollow (1999), a dark and violent retelling of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman story with several nods to the classic British Hammer Horror films. In 2001, Burton made a ‘reimagining’ of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes and, despite being visually impressive (to be expected with any Burton film,) it was easily Burton’s weakest.

Helena Bonham Carter with Tim Burton on the set of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

In 2003, and following the death of his parents, Burton directed Big Fish. Often-overlooked, it is one of Burton’s most emotionally rewarding films, dealing with the power of storytelling with a strong father–son reconciliation theme. After taking on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Burton returned to the familiar terrain of stop-motion animated gothic fairytales with Corpse Bride (2005). This was followed in 2007 with an adaptation of the violent melodrama Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical. A Danny Elfman score was absent, due to the presence of Sondheim’s original music, but Sweeney Todd was still classic Burton with its combination of black humour, stylised violence and quirky fantasy sequences.

Now, in 2010, Burton shows no signs of slowing down. Alice in Wonderland has fans worldwide in frenzied anticipation, and the feature-length version of his 1984 short film, Frankenweenie, is in development for a potential 2011 release. Not bad for an introverted kid who dared to dream of a world where the loners and freaks who hid in the shadows were the heroes. The world of Tim Burton just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.

The Tim Burton exhibition is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne from 24 June until 10 October 2010. Alice in Wonderland was released 4 March 2010.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 349, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Alice in Wonderland (2010)

1 March 2010

Alice (Mia Wasikowska)

The first thing you need to know about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is that despite its title implying that it is a new adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much-loved 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, it is in fact a sequel. In Burton’s film Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who has forgotten about her childhood journey into Underland (she misheard it as ‘Wonderland’) and once more takes a trip down the rabbit-hole after ducking out on an engagement proposal that has been carefully arranged for her. Having now returned to the magical world that she thought was something she dreamt, Alice is given the mission of saving the Underland inhabitants from the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen. Such a film really should have instead be called something like Return to Wonderland or Wonderland III: Wonder Harder.

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp)

The main problem with Burton’s film is that there is too much story when there should have been very little. While Carroll’s original novels and most other adaptations were absurdist, fragmented stories with Alice encountering one strange situation after another, Burton’s film introduces the majority of the characters within the first 10 minutes of Alice arriving in Underland. Burton has assumed, maybe correctly, that characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee and Tweedledum are iconic enough to not warrant separate introductions but the joy of Lewis’s novels is Alice’s progression from one character to another.

Burton’s film resembles fan-fiction where Alice, with the help of her Underland friends, is sent on a quest that involves finding her inner strength. The result feels like a mash up of The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, which may have been OK if it didn’t feel so out of synch with the original spirit of Carroll’s novels.

Australian actor Mia Wasikowska does a decent job at embodying Burton’s classic outsider/loner persona in the character of Alice. However, despite the film depicting her imagination and freewill as being under threat by the social conventions of Victorian society, by fulfilling a pre-ordained in Underland she is simply playing yet another role that she didn’t choose herself.

The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)

Johnny Depp is enjoyable as always but on complete autopilot as The Mad Hatter flickering between the manic, dark and vulnerable states that he has perfected from working with Burton for so long. Likewise, Burton’s other regular performer (and wife) Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen simply feels like a lesser version of Queen ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth I from Blackadder II.

Nevertheless, to dismiss Burton’s Alice in Wonderland altogether would do a considerable disservice to the remarkable visual achievements that makes such a film still worth seeing on the big screen despite all its faults. The moment when Alice does fall down the rabbit-hole and then emerge into Underland is glorious with Danny Elfman’s distinct score resonating on the soundtrack and Burton’s surreal gothic sensibility in full force, combining the aesthetics that audiences have come to love from films such as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. The narrative may be forced and uninteresting but the combination of costuming, art direction, production design and cinematography compensate. You’re not going to lose yourself in the story or the characters but visually Alice in Wonderland is a series of moving artworks that are a joy to gaze upon despite lacking any depth, even in 3D.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s profile of director Tim Burton.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Read more reviews at MRQE


Film review – 9 (2009)

6 December 2009
9 (voiced by Elijah Wood)

9 (voiced by Elijah Wood)

The computer-animated film 9 is a sort of Terminator Salvation for tweens. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by war machines who turned against their creators, the last echoes of humanity are to be found in a small group of rag dolls who have been brought to life with the essence of their human creator. The last doll to be brought to life is 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) who soon meets the other dolls and while on a mission to save 2 (voiced by Martin Landau), unwittingly brings to life the deadly Fabrication Machine, which has the ability to build more machines of death and destruction.

Animator Shane Acker first made 9 as a short film and on the strength of that it has now been made into this impressive feature debut. While the producers include Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands) and Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) 9 tonally owes more to some of the darker 1980s animated features such as Don Bluth’s 1982 The Secret of NIMH. Stylistically 9 belongs to the science fiction sub-genre of steampunk, with many of the war machines seen in flashbacks looking distinctively like the re-imagined The War of the Worlds alien spaceships from Alan Moore’s second The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic series. In fact, the handcrafted found-object appearance and functionality of dolls and machines in 9 have resulted in fans already referring to the film as ‘stitchpunk’.

While 9 will appeal predominantly to adolescent and maybe young adult viewers, it is too dark and scary for younger children. It is also a bit too simplistic and basic for older audiences who will find plenty to marvel at from a distance but little to really engage with. While 9 contains several stunning scenic backdrops, the action in the foreground tends to be overly fast and busy, lacking the fluidity that allows audiences to really connect with what is going on. Nevertheless, 9 is overall an enjoyable and inventive film with a touching conclusion that takes the edge off some of the darker moments earlier in the film without feeling like a compromise.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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