by Steve Habrat
One of the most important films from my childhood is without question Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the first big screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader that dared to remain buried in the shadows. With Batman, Burton proved to Hollywood that audiences would eat up a deliciously dark and violent superhero movie and they wouldn’t even bat an eyebrow. Burton’s Batman, along with the campy Adam West television series, is what shaped me into the diehard Bat-fan (and collector) that I am today. Yet Burton’s original film had two aspects that I have never been able to really get over and one is the fact that the story is told mostly from the Joker’s point of view. Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost a secondary character to Jack Nicholson’s cackling madman. To make things even more infuriating for this Bat-fan, Burton reshaped Batman’s origin by having the Joker be the one who gunned down Batman’s parents in that dark and damp alley. Despite these flaws that are a BIG no-no to me, Batman is still an awesomely gothic vision of the DC Comics vigilante created by Bob Kane (who gets an awesome cameo here). I firmly believe that Burton was put on this earth to convert Kane’s winged vigilante into movie material and replace the campy tone of the 60’s television series with a freakishly haunting mood that you won’t soon forget.
Batman begins on the dangerous streets of Gotham City, a gothic metropolis that is plagued with decay and filth. Despite efforts from the newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Played by Billy Dee Williams) and police commissioner Jim Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle), the city is still controlled by mob boss Carl Grissom (Played by Jack Palance), who rules the streets at night. The real terror is Grissom’s right hand man Jack Napier (Played by Jack Nicholson), who gets a kick out of murder and carries on a hushed affair with Grissom’s gorgeous galpal. Gotham City is also rampant with rumors about a masked vigilante who prowls the rooftops, seeking out the criminals who terrorize the innocent citizens. This vigilante happens to be billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Michael Keaton), who vowed to wage a war on crime the night his parents were murdered in cold blood. One evening, Napier is sent by Grissom to raid the chemical company Axis Chemicals, but once he arrives, he realizes that Grissom has set him up to be taken down by Gotham City police. As the standoff intensifies, the masked vigilante known as Batman reveals himself to both the mobsters and the police. In the midst of the chaos, Batman, who is trying to detain Napier peacefully, accidentally drops him into a vat of chemicals that horribly disfigures him, turning him in to the giggling Clown Prince of Crime known as the Joker.
There is no question that Batman belongs to Nicholson’s roaring manic, which is a blessing and a curse. He rips through the movie delivering line after line of iconic dialogue that you will be quoting for days with your buddies. Burton eases Nicholson onto the path of a deadly buffoon who gets a kick out of practical jokes and jabs aimed at the Caped Crusader. The downside of all of this is that his sinister nature is saturated with scenes where he parades around with his goons listening to Prince. They shimmy and shake through the most bizarre art museum you have ever seen, defacing classic pieces with spray paint while belting out “Party Man” at the top of their lungs. This was the type of stuff that really bothered me about Batman. It feels like Burton was pressured into lightening the mood just a little bit so the studio could grab a younger audience. He repeats this at the end with a parade sequence that, once again, is blaring Prince at us (If you weren’t aware, Prince contributed a number of songs to the soundtrack). It’s another party anthem that is meant to get you rocking and drown out the idea that the Joker is about to commit mass murder. Luckily, Burton doesn’t let it completely overtake the scene and we do get the ultimate taste of how evil the Joker truly is.
The emphasis on Nicholson overshadows Keaton’s magnificent performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Keaton gives a grade-A performance as Bruce Wayne and in my eyes, he is still the second best movie Batman. He really isn’t given very much time in the spotlight but what little he gets is perfectly brooding. The scenes he gets with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, a photographer eager to nab a photo of the crime fighter, are delicately structured and distantly aching. Bruce so desperately longs for a normal existence but his work overshadows his love life. He brushes over the longing with a dismissive attitude, the cold face of a billionaire playboy who can have any woman he wants. Basinger is a lovesick puppy who wants into Bruce’s heart, but as she discovers more and more about the man and the demons he conceals, the more she views her task as hopeless. He is too removed and distant to ever allow someone to get close. Keaton’s best scenes, however, come when he confides in his trusted butler Alfred (Played by Michael Gough), who is the acting father figure in his life. Gough is, was, and ever shall be the best Alfred ever put on film, at least to me. He is so affectionate and strong with Bruce, acting as both the push Bruce needs to continue on as Batman as well as the stern voice of reason that he searches for.
There is plenty of action to thrill over in Burton’s Batman, all leading to an epic fistfight between the Joker and Batman at the very top of a dilapidated cathedral (Would you expect anything less from Burton?). The opening moments of the film still give me goosebumps, the Batman emerging from the shadows to clobber a duo of thugs who swap rumors they have heard about this winged demon with a taste for blood. The eerie confrontation ends with the thug squealing, “Who are you”, with Batman tugging him a little closer and whispering the iconic answer, “I’m Batman.” Burton is only wetting our appetite with the scene and he carefully places a number of money shot moments throughout his film that will drive any Batman fan wild with delight. The “I’m melting!” scene is a personal favorite of this Batman fan and I still can’t help but smile over how the scene plays out. It is wildly demented with Batman swooping in at just the right moment. All these teases really amp up with a street showdown between the Joker and Batman that hasn’t aged a day. I am still filled with awe during the Batwing battle that leaves the Joker stammering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me he had one of those…. THINGS!” The effects are timeless and the fights are bare-knuckle bloody, which is exactly how they should be. Bravo, Burton!
Throughout this review, I have put my inner fanboy on hold and left a few of my gripes with the movie on the backburner. While I think the image of the Batwing covering the moon is neat, I think it is a bit ridiculous. There are hundreds of people dying below and I hardly doubt Batman would stop to cover the moon up with the Batwing. I also seethe over how Burton wastes the characters of Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. I always loved the relationship between Batman and Gordon and I get none of that here. He is such a spectacular ally for the Dark Knight and sadly, Burton gives him absolutely nothing to do. I still get worked up over the fact that Batman can’t turn his neck, something I have always loathed in these early Batman movies. How is he supposed to fight crime if he can’t even look left or right? Still, Batman has plenty of style and atmosphere, which fits well in this interpretation of the character. Burton’s Gotham City is filled with menace and can really be an intimidating place when the sun goes down. The galloping score from Danny Elfman, who conjures up an iconic theme to for our triumphant hero, compliments all of this gothic tension Burton musters. Grand, exciting, and featuring some of the best performances in a comic book movie, Batman is a flawed but undeniably fun classic that never gets old. A total crowd pleaser for both the diehard Batman fans like myself and the average movie-going public.
Batman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
by Steve Habrat
What a wonderful, wacky, and downright weird world that goth auteur Tim Burton crafts in the marvelous retelling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which stays furiously faithful to the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Making a kaleidoscope trip into a world of neon candy and Busby Berkely-esque musical numbers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features tart laughs and sugary sweet lessons for the kiddies, all while bursting at the smokestack with imagination and (as usual) vision from Uncle Tim. In the wake of Johnny Depp’s breakout role as boozy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Warner Brothers and Burton allow Depp to go straight bonkers with his portrayal of famed chocolate maker Willy Wonka, a grinning and (of course) misunderstood creep who talks like a valley girl and shudders at the mere sight of a child. Unlike Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka in the 1971 original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s version is much more bubbly and, dare I say, memorable than Wilder’s dry and conservative performance, which is a performance I do have quite a bit of respect for. But Depp’s Wonka had me in stitches far more than Wilder’s and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the emotional wounds that Depp’s Wonka hides from the world behind giant bug-eyed sunglasses.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory introduces us to the poor but sweet Charlie Bucket (Played by Freddie Highmore), who happens to be a fanatic of mysertious candy maker Willy Wonka (Played by Johnny Depp). Charlie gets one chocolate bar a year from his warm mother (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) and father (Played by Noah Taylor), a treat that he heavily looks forward to. He shares the small chocolate bar with his live-in grandparents and while they munch, his Grandpa Joe (Played by David Kelly) shares stories about when he worked in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The cloistered Wonka suddenly makes an announcement to the world, declaring that he will allow five children into his world famous chocolate factory. To gain entry, they need to find a Golden Ticket hidden within the chocolate bars that fly off the shelf at an alarming rate. As the children who found tickets are revealed, they turn out to be spoiled rotten brats and know-it-alls who are far from deserving to have a tour of Wonka’s factory. After multiple attempts, Charlie finally gets his hands on a Golden Ticket and is accompanied to the factory by his Grandpa Joe. After a bizarre introduction to Willy Wonka, the group begins their tour of the astonishing factory, with the promise of a very special prize to one lucky child.
Much like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is jam packed with room after room of unrestrained imagination that acts as candy for the eyes. In each of these rooms, Wonka’s tiny employees called Oompa-Loompas treat us to tasty musical numbers. These musical numbers, which are taken from Dahl’s book, are brought to the screen by frequent Burton composer Danny Elfman and boy, are they a fiesta for the ear buds. They also turn out to be the one aspect of the film that is majorly flawed. Acting as a far-out ball of electronic, rock, swing, jazz, and literally every other musical genre you can think of and then some, Elfman’s execution of these songs features voice alteration of the Oompa-Loompas, all played by Deep Roy. At times, the lyrics are difficult to understand, the clarity buried under multiple effects and squealing instruments. Two numbers in particular will have you reaching for the remote to switch on subtitles or flipping through your copy of Dahl’s book.
In addition to trippy visuals, Depp’s Wonka is a real sight to behold. Acting as a creepy mix of valley girl and man-child, Depp’s Wonka does make you feel slightly uncomfortable, much like he does the parents of the children who are visiting his factory. He cringes when a child touches him and has no clue how to connect with one of the little sprouts. A sequence in which he discusses cannibalism with them is one of the highlights of the entire film. Depp’s Wonka also conceals a fractured relationship with his father, one that has caused them to sever contact with each other. Through flashbacks that are triggered by comments that the children make throughout their trip through the candy factory, we see how the relationship between the stern dentist Wilbur Wonka (Played by the booming Christopher Lee) and little Willy Wonka went sour. These scenes are effectively emotional, watching Wilbur forbid Willy to enjoy a sugary treat. Depp’s Wonka is a sympathetic misfit, especially when we learn why he has opened his factory doors to these children and that he does have a heart buried beneath all of his bitterness.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be nothing without its child actors who for the most part do a good job. Highmore is the true star as the kind and generous Charlie Bucket, who always thinks of others before himself. He is really incredible when he plays off of Depp, the two of them sharing interactions that are both funny and touching. Other standouts are Jordan Fry as Mike Teavee, who scowls through the entire tour of the factory and Julia Winter as the wealthy spoiled brat Veruca Salt, who wants everything she lays her peepers on. Philip Wiegratz as Agustus Gloop seems a bit coached by Burton, huffing and puffing through he dialogue but seeming like he is holding back a bit. AnnaSophia Robb as the overachieving smart-aleck Violet Beauregarde is effective in annoying the hell out of you but also seems a bit coached. The rest of the players, who are mostly there as the children’s parents, do a fine job at playing horrified when something happens to their child. The best is Adam Godley as the exasperated Mr. Teavee, who seems more puzzled by his own child rather than the spaced-out Wonka.
Overall, Burton’s film hits a few waves (the vocals in the music are the biggest disappointment and a few of the special effects could have used touching up) but this boat floats along quite smoothly on Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s a joy to watch Depp really allow his freak flag to fly (in many respects, I think he is having more fun as Wonka than he did as Jack Sparrow) and give you the willies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also works because the terrific Highmore, who is always perfect while he gently guides the film along. The film has multiple nods to pop culture, ranging from The Beatles, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Busby Berkeley, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no question that Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the weirder children’s movies you will ever see but it has only the best of intentions. It has a lasting warmth that comforts you like a blanket and has humor that will have you away for days. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not contain much depth, but it has a soul as sweet as sugar and frankly that is enough for me.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
by Steve Habrat
Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas. Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.
The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town. Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.
As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.
There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.