Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

There’s an air of familiarity that is laid on thickly at the start of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. From the ominous sharpness of its suburban community to the picture’s many tired faces, Frankenweenie’s déjà-vu qualities extend beyond being an adaptation of Tim Burton’s short film. But as the picture begins to settle and ground its central dog/boy companionship narrative, Frankenweenie becomes less a picture drawing upon Burton’s rich (though somewhat exhausted) aesthetic appeal and more about a boy’s endeavor to hold onto his best friend. As extensively stylized as any of Burton’s films, what makes Frankenweenie so appealing is that once the aesthetic is stripped away, what is left is a sweet (though somewhat shallow) narrative on the bonds of friendship.

Paying homage to monster movies of old, Frankenweenie rarely instills a greater sense of appreciation for films like The Birds, Godzilla, or Frankenstein other than particular visual cues. Its peculiar nature is most indebted to Burton’s own pastiche, particularly Edward Scissorhands and Beetle Juice.  But what Frankenweenie most uniquely addresses among what I’ve seen from Burton’s oeuvre is the sense of anxiety that comes with youth. The most resounding thematic element in Frankenweenie deals with Victor’s (Charlie Tahan) sense of loneliness. But unlike ParaNorman, which addresses a similar sense of isolation from youth, Victor’s social standing amongst his classmates is never really made apparent. Perhaps a result of the overt bizarreness of the picture, so many of its characters stand on the outside looking in.

What’s most disconcerting about Frankenweenie is its aimlessness. Many ideas are tossed throughout the picture, from a science teacher acknowledging the stupidity of the townspeople to a group of classmates attempting to recreate Victor’s reanimation process. But none of these ideas gel with the picture’s central narrative of a boy’s loyalty to his pet. There’s simply not a whole lot of bite to its material. Despite its gorgeous visual palette, the picture is simply content with being sweet.

While this may be an unfair comparison, Frankenweenie is simply obsolete when compared to the recent ParaNorman. The similarities between the two may not go much further than having a deep-rooted appreciation for horror films and dealing with the troubles of social acceptance in school, but everything about ParaNorman registers as a more mature and tight effort. The ideas in ParaNorman all coalesce into a meaningful climax. With Frankenweenie, so much of the picture’s fleeting themes and ideas, from a potential romance to its scientific queries, converge into a messy chase sequence that, while humorous, doesn’t have much thematic heft. 

Rating: 5/10

Home Movies #1

Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.

Batman Returns (1992) Directed by Tim Burton

I’ve been nerding it up lately, as I’ve been catching up with the early nineties animated Batman cartoon and reading some graphic novels in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises. The thing is that I’m not much of a fan of any of the feature films. Batman (1989) is so deeply rooted in its 80s aesthetic that it’s comical to see a picture age so poorly. The Joel Schumacher films, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), inhabit the “it’s so bad, it’s good” cinematic landscape. And while I like the Christopher Nolan films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), their strict adherence to seriousness can become problematic for films based on a comic. If there’s any singular picture that balances the comic elements associated with Batman with the brooding nature that writer Frank Miller took with the character in The Dark Knight Returns, it’d be Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Here’s a film that understands the outlandish comic nature associated with Gotham City, its heroes, and its villains. Rich with Burton’s sense of visual flare, Batman Returns encapsulates the tragic titular character with both his comic and gothic background. And unlike Burton’s first Batman feature, Returns manages to prevent itself from ever becoming too dated.    Returns also highlights two of the best performances in any Batman picture, as Christopher Walken and especially Michelle Pfeiffer spar in acting clinics. The film does have some narrative kinks that seem to plague most of the Batman films particularly given that the hero’s lacking charismatic quality equates to his villains overwhelming screen time. But still, as far as I’m concerned, Batman Returns remains the best film in the franchise.

Rating: 7/10

The Invisible Man (1933) Directed by James Whale 

In conjunction with my nerding it up with Batman, I’ve also been exploring a pretty big cinematic blind spot: films of the 1930s. My luck has been less than encouraging, as I’ve found it difficult to find pictures that I can really take to from the era. And it’s not that I’m entirely averse to the decade, as F.W. Murnau’s City Girl, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Modern Times stand out as some of my favorite films ever. After checking out James Whale’s 1931 effort with Frankenstein, I was less than enthused to check out his work. Thankfully, his work in The Invisible Man was a markable improvement.

The Invisible Man works well given its time period, as a lot of the effects on display are truly impressive for a film made in the 30s. But beyond that, the picture manages to weave a narrative that is deliberately obtuse. We’re introduced to an obscure character from the onset, with the narrative unraveling very delicately. There’s something so incredibly menacing about the central character as well, an aspect that was surprisingly absent in Frankenstein. The Invisible Man isn’t the most well-directed or well-acted of films, but it does have a peculiar narrative framework that makes it particularly enjoyable.

Rating: 7/10

I Was Born, But… (1932) Directed by Yasujirô Ozu

It’s funny how, as I’m about to give up on really finding anything amazing from the decade, I stumble upon this picture. I Was Born, But… comes at just the right time. It’s a picture that may come across as slight on first glance, but as it unfolds, the subtle development and stylistic framework of its narrative makes for a very profound experience.

From its onset, I Was Born, But… seems content with acknowledging the childhood experience. Two children move with their mother and father to a suburb. They deal with bullies and school at first, but are eventually accepted by their peers. Their father works in a office. Their mother tends to the home. In a way, it may not initially evoke profundity, but Ozu delicately examines the transition from childhood to adulthood. Simple shots where the children are at school, sitting at their desks, is followed by cuts to the father at his office.

This all comes to a head when the world of children and the world of adults interact. The children watch their father kiss up to his boss. For a child who sees the world through a lens where their parents are superior, it comes as a true shock to see their father in a subordinate position. This complicates and strains their relationships – their father taught them to work hard like him, but has working hard really paid off?

I can’t directly recall a film that so beautifully addressees the social fabric of the world with such timeliness. It’s truly a universal narrative, whereupon socioeconomic status, brotherhood, and familial bonds intersect in an organic way. While the picture has encouraged me with keeping my pursuit of watching films from the 1930s, I Was Born, But… has got me more interested in exploring another one of my cinematic blinds spots – Ozu’s filmography.

Rating: 10/10

Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996)

Mars Attacks! is a somewhat enjoyable exercise, though it’s also lacking in terms of narrative direction and pulse. The various storylines that Burton employs are so unrelated that it serves to diverge from any momentum the film develops. The film has sequences involving the President (Jack Nicolson) and his cabinet, a mother (Pam Grier) and her children, a hippie woman (Annette Benning) and her entrepreneur boyfriend (Nicholson, again), and a cast of Las Vegas stars that include Tom Jones. There’s more, and quite frankly, it’s a bit too much. It’s too bloated, too self-aware of its large star presence that it makes it difficult to really embrace the film, even as a sort of guilty pleasure.

Nonetheless, I did find enjoyable moments throughout the film. They’re peppered in there – from Pierce Bronson’s annoyingly hilarious scientist character to Jim Brown in hand-to hand combat with the aliens. But nothing about the film really sticks out, with the sole exception of the phrase “ack ack ack”.

5/10