Blog Archives

Anti-Film School Recommends These Films…

Dredd (2012)

Dredd (2012)

&

Frankenweenie (2012)

Frankenweenie (2012)

Hey readers,

It has been a little while since I did this Tuesday feature, but there are two movies hitting Blu-ray today that bombed majorly at the box office and it was a real shame because they were both very good. First up is Dredd, a high-octane thrill ride that was surprisingly entertaining for a movie that was dumped into theaters in September. Dredd packs a stunning visual style which I’m sure will look great on your HD TV and features one hell of a performance from Karl Urban as the growling Judge Dredd. If you’re a comic book fan, the film is a must-see. One cool special feature is “Mega City Masters: 35 Years of Judge Dredd,” which will make the die hard fans wild with delight. After you’ve had your fill of Dredd‘s blood and guts action, lighten things up with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, which is one of the strongest animated films of the year. A return to form for Mr. Burton, Frankenweenie is a real treat for fans of the classic Universal Studios monsters and a heartwarming story for any pet owner. It also happens to be very funny, creepy, and relentlessly clever. As far as features go, check out the “Making Of” feature on Frankenweenie, which dives into how they brought those wonderful characters to life.

If you wish to check out Anti-Film School’s review of Dredd, click here, and if you wish to give Frankenweenie a read, click here. Otherwise, get those credit cards ready and add these awesome movies to your collection.

-Theater Management (Steve)

Dredd Blu-ray Cover

Frankenweenie Blu-ray

Advertisements

Frankenweenie (2012)

by Steve Habrat

In the wake of his stellar 2007 musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton churned out two horribly inconsistent remakes that were typical exercises in pricey style over script substance. Alice in Wonderland found Disney filling each frame with sugary 3D effects and sprawling CGI landscapes that looked like it was inspired by Burton rather than actually crafted by him. The film was a disaster but I pointed my blame more at Disney than Burton. This summer’s Dark Shadows remake was another catastrophe that suggested that maybe Burton did deserve some of the blame for these movies flying wildly off their gothic tracks. Needless to say, I was a bit worried going in to Frankenweenie, the third horror-themed kiddie flick of the late summer and early fall (the other two being ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania). Well, after two massive duds, Mr. Burton is finally on the right track again and firing on all creative cylinders. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Frankenweenie ranks near the top as one of Burton’s strongest films in his vault. While some children and adults may be turned off due to the black and white presentation of the film and the morbid subject matter, Frankenweenie thrills, chills, and even tickles movie buffs with a strong affection for the classic Universal monsters, 40’s and 50’s B-movies, and Hammer horror offerings. Plus, it truly is difficult to resist a story about a boy and his undead pup.

Frankenweenie ushers us into the small town of New Holland, where we meet young outsider Victor Frankenstein (Voiced by Charlie Tahan), a lanky amateur filmmaker and brilliant scientist who adores his feisty bull terrier Sparky. Victor’s parents, Edward (Voiced by Martin Short) and Susan (Voiced by Catherine O’Hara), encourage Victor to step out of his comfort zone and join the baseball team at school. During his first game, the Frankenstein’s bring Spark to watch Victor play, but after he knocks the ball out of the park, Sparky chases after the ball and is hit by a car. Victor is devastated by the loss but his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Voiced by Martin Landau) inadvertently gives Victor the idea of using electricity to bring Spark back from the dead. Confident he can pull off the experiment, Victor rushes out to dig up his four-legged friend and reanimate him as quickly as possible. Determined to keep his experiment a secret, Victor is soon found out by fellow outsider Edgar “E” Gore (Voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who blackmails Victor into teaching him how to reanimate deceased pets for the science fair. Meanwhile, the cranky New Holland mayor, Mr. Bergermeister (Voiced by Martin Short) suspects that Victor is up to something strange in his attic laboratory. As more and more dead pets are unleashed on the town, Victor turns to his crush and next-door neighbor, Elsa van Helsing (Voiced by Winona Ryder), for help from the angry mobs who wish to send these abominations of science back to the grave.

With Burton in complete control of his vision and Disney doing very little to screw it up, he cleverly builds upon his 1984 short film of the same name. Frankenweenie is a ghoulish and cobwebbed celebration of classic monsters and dated creature features that inspired Burton as a young boy. I was consistently astonished the way that Burton works references to Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon into Frankenweenie and figures out a way to make all these films flow together without stretching it. These references absolutely hilarious, that is if you are in on the jokes and have seen the movies. If the Universal monsters weren’t enough, Burton also tosses in Godzilla, Vincent Price, and Hammer’s crown jewel Horror of Dracula just to let you know he loves those movies too. You may also catch a whiff of Edward Scissorhands with the overall look of New Holland and there is even a Nightmare Before Christmas aura in the pet cemetery where the adorable Sparky is buried. Frankenweenie also dares to be a little creepy in places, which was incredibly impressive considering most straightforward horror films can’t even muster an effective jump scare.

And then we have the wonderfully voiced and illustrated characters, all who despite being made of clay and plastic, jump to life in incredible ways. I absolutely loved the loner Victor and I could relate to his sadness over the loss of a beloved pet. I had to have both of my dogs put down in the same year and it was absolutely devastating. I just wanted to reach through the screen and hug the little guy. Then we have Sparky, the playful pup who enjoys passing a ball under his backyard fence to Elsa’s poodle, Persephone. I grinned ear to ear when she sniffed Sparky’s bolts and received a shock that left two white streaks that have her looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. While the adults are all fairly straightforward (Short and O’Hara voice stereotypical concerned yet hilariously oblivious parents), the kids are the real treat. The grave and monotone Nassor (Voiced by Short) will grab laughs as he commands his mummified Colossus to crawl from its tomb (wait until you get a look a Colossus) and Weird Girl (Voiced by O’Hara) is creepy fun as she walks around bug-eyed with her cat curled up in her arms. The chunky Bob (Voiced by Robert Capron) and the scheming Toshiaki (Voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao) hilariously compete with Victor and the results are as macabre as you can imagine. Ryder is appropriately mopey as Elsa, who I wish we would have seen more of and Landau purrs through his work as Vincent Price-esque science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who appears to have just rolled out of his grave.

While it is truly depressing that Adam Sandler’s limp Hotel Transylvania beat out Frankenweenie at the box office, it was really hard to see families flocking to a film like this. This is pretty bizarre territory but I sincerely hope that this finds an afterlife on Blu-ray, which I suspect it will, especially with the Hot Topic crowd who go bonkers for Jack Skellington. Personally, I feel like Frankenweenie was more appropriate for the fall/Halloween season as it does offer more than a few creepy moments that are sure to raise the hair on your arms. For the first time in quite a while, it seems like Burton is working from the heart rather than just rolling up his sleeves for a paycheck. I never got the feeling like he was bored with the material or under pressure from the studio, which was a relief. I absolutely loved the monsters-run-amok ending and I can honestly say it was much more thrilling than anything found in Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. And then there is the overwhelming emotion that takes hold in certain places, something that many can relate to, especially if they have lost a pet. It may be a small effort but it’s a passion project that pays off. While I loved the weird and wacky ParaNorman, I think I have to go with the heartwarming Frankenweenie as the best animated film of the year.

Grade: A+

Batman & Robin (1997)

by Steve Habrat

If Batfans were worried about what direction the Batman films were going in after 1995’s half-campy Batman Forever, our worst fears were confirmed with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 atrocity Batman & Robin. For this Batfan, I remained in denial about the movie for several weeks after I saw it, refusing to admit that it was downright awful. As the days passed, I began to face the truth and accept that Batman had been turned into a two-hour toy commercial that had little respect for the character I had grown up with. Schumacher had done what absolutely no one wanted to see and that was return to the silliness of the 1960s. Even more family friendly than Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was relentlessly juvenile, with Looney Tunes sound effects, the dynamic duo playing hockey with the “hockey team from Hell”, and Mr. Freeze delivering some seriously appalling one-liners that made any proud Batfan want to smash their head into a wall then curl up and die. Oh, and they totally ruined Bane! As a result of Batman & Robin, I actually gave up Batman and quit collecting the comics and toys for years after. I was so embarrassed by it and even today when I revisit the film, it is a real chore to get through. For two hours, Warner Bros. and Schumacher crush your spirits and spit in your face with lines like “You’re not gonna send me to the coolah!”

Batman & Robin begins with Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) summoning Batman (Played by George Clooney) and Robin (Played by Chris O’Donnell) to Gotham City to stop the sinister Mr. Freeze (Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) from stealing a cache of diamonds. Mr. Freeze narrowly escapes the masked vigilantes and returns to his hideout where he is trying to save the life of his beloved wife who is suffering from MacGregor’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, in South America, botanist Dr. Pamela Isely (Played by Uma Thurman) is working under the mad Dr. Jason Woodrue (Played by John Glover) who is experimenting with a serum called “Venom”, which transforms runts into super soldiers. He experiments on a scrawny criminal and in the process, turns him into the hulking killing machine Bane (Played by Jeep Swenson). Dr. Isely witness the experiment and when she refuses to join Dr. Woodrue, he brutally murders her with an assortment of different toxins that she was working on. Isely is reborn as the sexy seductress Poison Ivy, who joins forces with Bane and heads to Gotham City to confront Bruce Wayne about cutting the funding of her project in South America. Once she arrives, she bumps into Mr. Freeze and together, they form an alliance that will have Batman and Robin scrambling to find all the help they can get.

In interviews about the film, Schumacher explains that Warner Bros. really pressured him to keep things light for the children, even more than they did on Batman Forever. They also ushered in toy companies to have a strong input in the design of gadgets and vehicles and it is completely obvious. It was an attempt to make things more “toyetic”. There are countless gadgets strewn throughout the film, most of them serving no purpose at all. Then there is the Batmobile, which looks like a supped-up sports car that will be used for street racing rather than battling crime. I’m stunned that Schumacher didn’t throw text on the screen that read “For sale at your local Wal-Mart!” just so everyone knew it was available. The film has a paper thin plotline that barely makes any sense at all, the whole grand scheme here is that Mr. Freeze wants to freeze the city. The annoying aesthetic that Schumacher applied in Batman Forever is also punched up to one hundred as the film constantly looks like it was filmed in various glow-in-the-dark nightclubs as techno pumps into the fight scenes. While all of this is bad, nothing can compare to the performances that Schumacher captures.

Stepping in for Val Kilmer is the hunky George Clooney, who is so uncomfortable in the role that he is practically looking into the camera and saying it to us. His Bruce Wayne is a grinning and sunny philanthropist who refuses to brood or be at odds with his duty of protecting Gotham City. He is more of a wisecracking dad to Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who belts out cringe inducing dialogue at every turn. A scene where Batman and Robin glide through the sky on makeshift surfboards has Robin yelling “Cowabunga!” as he surfs over the rooftops of Gotham. There is a disposable side plot that finds Robin growing tired with all of Batman’s rules, which consistently keep him alive and he doesn’t even realize it. He whines and moans that Bruce doesn’t trust him but it never leads to anything substantial. Schumacher also can’t resist lacing the moments between Bruce and Dick with a homoerotic feel that once again is completely out of place. Things really get weird when they begin bickering over Poison Ivy, who introduces herself at a charity ball that has the dynamic duo arguing over who will take her home. The scene culminates in Batman whipping out an American Express card and warning Robin to “never leave the Batcave without it”. I don’t know about you, but I would think it would be odd that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be at his own charity ball but Batman is there bidding millions of dollars to take Ivy home. Maybe it is just me, but I think doing something like that would give yourself away instantly.

Then we have the villains, who once again steal most of the movie away from the title characters. Schwarzenegger is a lumbering chunk of blue cheese as he delivers some of the films worst lines of dialogue. Every line written for the man is a one liner that references freezing something. He crashes a party and shouts “Everyone chill!” as the guests shriek in terror. Then there is the femme fatale Poison Ivy, who is equally cheeky when she delivers lines like “Curses!” as she is foiled by Batgirl. She spends a good majority of the movie trying to seduce men and kiss them, which is the only thing deadly about her. Then we have Swenson’s Bane, a mindless brute with greenish skin that grunts, groans, and moans as Freeze and Ivy give him commands. For a villain that was extremely deadly in the comic books, it is such a disappointment when Robin and Batgirl swoop in and defeat this hulk. Alicia Silverstone shows up as Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece who likes to play sweet and innocent but has a knack for getting in with the wrong people. She ultimately becomes Batgirl but there is no build up to this. She just suddenly becomes part of the team and Batman never once questions her sudden appearance. Michael Gough reprises his role as Alfred and even he seems to be phoning it in here. He gets a side story that reveals his character is hiding an illness that may take his life. This is the most interesting part of Batman & Robin but it certainly doesn’t better the movie. Also returning is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon who is present only to grab a few laughs and then disappear.

By the time Mr. Freeze has converted a giant telescope into a freeze machine that will blanket Gotham City in a thick layer of ice, you will have completely checked out of Batman & Robin. Poison Ivy basically serves no purpose in the movie other than to drag the film out a little bit. Batman and Robin are unable to beat her even though she is powerless yet Batgirl swings in with one kick and Ivy is no more. Our heroes also have time to do a quick wardrobe change in the final act of the film, emerging onto the slick streets of ice town wearing futuristic armor that looks ridiculous. It doesn’t aid the trio in battling Mr. Freeze and seems like it is only here to look cool. And DON’T get me started on the nipples that are once again present on the Batsuit! Overall, it is hard to believe that Batman & Robin is operating in the same universe that Tim Burton created in 1989. An obnoxious mess of a film that is completely unwatchable from the get-go, Batman & Robin is not only the worst Batman film ever made, but is also one of the worst superhero films to ever grace the silver screen. A complete embarrassment on every single level, both for fans and the filmmakers.

Grade: F

Batman & Robin is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Batman Forever (1995)

by Steve Habrat

After Tim Burton took Batman to the darkest depths of evil’s soul in 1992’s Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to make the Batman franchise friendlier to families all over America (No death to children here!). With Burton out of the director’s chair and wearing the producer’s hat, Joel Schumacher steps in to brighten the mood, yanking the brooding Batman out of the shadows and tossing him head first into a world of neon lights and rubber nipples on the Batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, the third installment in the franchise, was without question the grandest Batman film to date. It sprints all over this art deco Gotham City that looks more like a nightclub than an actual metropolis. Some of the dark tones of the original two films remain loosely in tact and newcomer Val Kilmer, who steps in for Michael Keaton, refuses to quit brooding as Bruce Wayne, but the film welcomes in two campy villains, an annoying sidekick, and a homoerotic feel that turns Batman and his antagonists into glam rock drag queens with no purpose or direction. Completely reversing the plot to create a darker Batman, Schumacher takes things back to the campy 60’s television series that starred Adam West as a much more cartoonish version of the Dark Knight and in the process, he horrifies Batfans everywhere.

Batman Forever begins with the dreaded Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Played by Tommy Lee Jones), the former do-gooder D.A. of Gotham City, terrorizing the good citizens of the sprawling city. He blames Batman (Played by Val Kilmer) for not intervening in a courtroom accident that left half of his face horribly scarred. Two-Face soon finds an ally in the rubbery terrorist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Played by Jim Carrey), a disgruntled former employee of Wayne Enterprises who is out to stick it to his idol, Bruce Wayne. The Riddler devises a way to suck the secrets out of the heads of the helpless citizens of Gotham, which allows him to get inside Batman’s mind and figure out his true identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has assumed responsibility for the young Dick Grayson (Played by Chris O’Donnell), who watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by the bloodthirsty Two-Face. As Dick spends more and more time in Wayne Manor, he begins to suspect that Wayne is hiding something and he is determined to find out what that secret is. As The Riddler and Two-Face close in on the city, Bruce Wayne begins to grapple with his true identity, leading him to consider hanging up the cape for good.

In the past, I have criticized Burton’s Batman films for not exploring the psychology of Bruce Wayne and what drives him to dress up like a giant bat. Schumacher’s Batman Forever attempts to wrap its head around why Bruce does this and while I admire the effort, it is shoddy and half-hearted. Bruce is urged by love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Played by Nicole Kidman) to face down his demons, which leads to a handful of moody flashbacks that are ripe with the darkness of the first two films. Unfortunately, a good majority of this side plot was removed from Batman Forever due to the studio’s fear of venturing back into the dark side of Batman. This is just one of the missed opportunities in Batman Forever. There are tons of moments that appear to be going in the right direction but are thrown off by studio interference. Many are quick to place ALL the blame on Schumacher, labeling him the only person responsible for Batman crumbling to glittery ash, but I think Warner Bros. also played a part in this monstrosity. I was always hesitant to put all of the blame on him because you will catch glimpses of the film that Schumacher wanted to make. There are some bleak touches to be found if you are willing to look closely, something that saves Batman Forever from being a total turd.

Another positive that Batman Forever has working in its favor is the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer continues to play Wayne with a straight face, refusing to stop and wink at the audience even when Schumacher slaps nipples on his armor. When he puts on the Batsuit, Kilmer communicates in a whisper that does seem perfect for a guy dressing up like a giant bat, which softens the blow of campy lines of dialogue like, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Things really hit rock bottom for Kilmer when he is forced to team up with O’Donnell’s Robin, who does nothing to lift the creeping veil of camp that is slowly draping over the film. Schumacher also hints at a homosexual spark between the two crime fighters, which would be okay if the previous two films had hinted that Bruce grapples with his sexuality but that isn’t the case here. Kilmer is forced to morph the brooding hero, who has had feelings for Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle in the past, into a bisexual with an identity crisis. It’s a bizarre touch to throw into the series in the third quarter but Kilmer keeps a cool head with the murky twist.

To make things worse for Batman Forever, O’Donnell has no clue how to approach the Boy Wonder. At times, he wants to be just as brooding and dark as Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and at others, he wants to be a party-boy rebel without a real cause. I had mixed feelings about his character but he really rubbed me the wrong way when he jacked the Batmobile and takes it out for a joyride. Personally, I could have done without the inclusion of Robin, as I personally have never been a huge fan of the character. Then we have the two villains, both who lift the buffoonery of Nicholson’s Joker but forget the measured menace that made his character so unforgettable. When Carrey isn’t on the screen with him, Jones actually knows how to handle his split-personality wacko but whenever the question-mark-clad Carrey enters the scene, the two seem like they are in a contest to see who can out-camp the other. Carrey wins the contest and turns the Riddler into a heavily caffeinated version of the Joker who loves one-liners and loves light-up jackets. Jones and Carrey do an admirable job with the material they are given, but I wish they weren’t asked to act like they are two giddy teenagers. Matching Kilmer’s somber tone is Nicole Kidman’s sexy psychologist (a fitting love interest for this film), who is here to coax the demons out of Wayne. Also back is Michael Gough as the faithful butler Alfred, who contributes another quality performance, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, who once again has absolutely nothing to do with his iconic character.

As I stated earlier, Batman Forever was the biggest Batman film at the time and Schumacher loads it with enough action to live up to that reputation. The film does have some marvelous sets even if they do turn Batman Forever into a gigantic neon dance club. The fight scenes lack the brutality of Batman and Batman Returns, at times seeming like the characters are dance fighting (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were) rather than actually fighting for their lives. Schumacher and his crew hope to overwhelm us with action and eye candy so that we won’t notice the fact that the film basically has no plot and they almost succeed. Luckily, Kilmer is a nice fit for Batman and it is a shame he didn’t stick around to elaborate on his performance, but I can’t say I blame him for abandoning the character when the studio is more interested in selling toys rather than making something coherent. Overall, Batman Forever is a regressive film that appeals more to kids than it does to the adult viewers looking for something substantial and weighty. Oh well, at least there wasn’t any “Wham” or “Pow” to speak of, which was a relief for a film that hits the ground with a campy joke about Batman stopping for drive-thru.

Grade: D+

Batman Forever is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Batman Returns (1992)

by Steve Habrat

While I credit Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for shaping me into the hardcore fan of the Caped Crusader that I am, my favorite Burton Batman film is without question the bizarre 1992 sequel Batman Returns. Darker, uglier, and meaner than the 89’ original, Batman Returns is a macabre circus of freaks that goes right for the jugular in more ways than one. Burton punches up the violence, the gore, and the sexual innuendos that would make overly sensitive young children cower in fear and nurse scars for life. Burton still makes the grave mistake of putting more emphasis on the formation of the foes rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman’s demons that plague him but Keaton does still get the chance to elaborate on the classic character, giving him more depth here than in Batman. Criticized by many critics and fans for putting more thought into the gothic world of Gotham City than the storyline, Batman Returns does have an even more flamboyant style than the original film but with this style, Burton piles on a sense of dread that practically snaps the film in two. With Batman Returns, Burton goes full goth on the viewer and I love it.

Batman Returns flashes back thirty-three years and ushers us in to a the lavish home of the Cobblepots, a wealthy couple who has given birth to a deformed child that they quickly smuggle out into the snowy evening and dump into the Gotham City sewers. The film jumps to present day with the deformed Penguin (Played by Danny DeVito) readying his plot to reveal himself to the world. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of Gotham’s citizens have gathered in Gotham Square for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony held by the Mayor (Played by Michael Murphy) and crooked businessman Max Shreck (Played by Christopher Walken). The Penguin unleashes his merry gang of freaks onto the city as a diversion so he can kidnap Shreck and blackmail him into helping him re-emerge into the world. Shreck, meanwhile, takes out his frustration with the incident on his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) by threatening her and then shoving her out of a window in disgust. She survives the fall and in the wake of the accident, she takes to the streets as a mysterious leather-clad vigilante who enjoys helping women in trouble while also leaving a trail of destruction across Gotham. As the violence escalates, Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) is forced to call upon the mysterious Batman (Played by Michael Keaton) to protect the city.

You’d never guess that Burton was hesitant to return to the world of Gotham City because Batman Returns comes at the viewer like, well, a bat out of Hell. The film begins with the disturbing images of a horrified couple dumping a baby into frigid waters and then quickly shifts over to the Penguin unleashing the Red Triangle Circus Gang on the city to commit mass murder. He cuts the scene up with the Batsignal shooting up into the sky while Bruce Wayne sits sulking in his darkened study, alone and away from the world yet completely comfortable in this isolated world of darkness. He notices the signal in the sky and he dutifully stands up to ready himself for battle. This is one of my favorite scenes in any of the Batman films that have made it to the big screen. Now you understand why I prefer this film to the original blockbuster. Burton isn’t playing it safe anymore and he keeps the gloom up for slightly over two hours.  We get to spend quite a bit more time with the man behind the cowl and Keaton continues to fascinate us. He has apparently learned to let love in, yet this time, the destruction is deadlier and he fidgets if he has to make a dash to the Batcave. Keaton sizzles when he plays off of Pfeiffer, who is both his love interest and his villain here. When the two are all dressed up and prowling the rooftops, get ready to have your world rocked. Their showdowns are explosive.

Batman Returns gives us a brief look at the tragedy that has given birth to the Penguin but it takes its good old time to really give us Catwoman, a sultry menace who aligns herself with both Batman and the Penguin. Her shift from timid to seductive is compelling and is a testament to Pfeiffer, who single handedly creates one of the best villains in this series of Batman films. In many ways, she overshadows most of the other villains because you never quite known if she is going to be playing friend or foe. Her origin, though slight cheesy, is one that will have the feminists cheering as she ditches the “His Girl Friday” routine and becomes a snarling liberator who warns the women she saves that they shouldn’t count on the BatMAN to save them anymore. After slicing up a mugger’s face, she whispers to the victim, “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” When she is paired up the slobbering sicko Penguin, a perverted freak of nature, it becomes a gothic Beauty and the Beast. DeVito is absolutely perfect as the sad sack Oswald Cobblepot, one who is eager to drain the citizens of their empathy and cackles behind closed doors at people’s gullibility. When he finally reveals his master plan, many may be covering their mouths in horror. Oh yes, Burton plans to go there and when one of Penguin’s gang members speaks up and tells Penguin that his plan may be a little too dark, he quickly reaches for his shotgun and blows the softie away. When I saw this in the theater, my jaw was on the floor.

Burton scales back some of his action in Batman Returns, making things a bit more claustrophobic but still thrilling nonetheless. There are lots of brawls in the snow-covered streets of Gotham between the vicious Red Triangle Circus Gang and Batman that are a lot of fun. The opening riot is appropriately shocking, especially when you see the whacked out appearance of the gang members. There is a fire-eater here, a pair of maniacs on stilts, and tons of freaks on motorcycles that don some horrifying skull masks. Near the end of the film, things take a turn into silliness with the Penguin unleashing hundreds of armed penguins on Gotham. It takes things into campy territory, which is a bit perplexing considering how dark the film was up until this big reveal. Burton regroups with a gruesome four way stand-off between a maskless Batman, a battered Catwoman, a dying Penguin, and a desperate Shreck, who seems slightly out of place in this trio of freaks. Much like the 89’ original, the effects have held up marvelously. Wait until you get a load of the scene where Batman glides over the chaos riddled streets of Gotham City, blending in with a swarm of bats that are filling the streets.

Batman Returns is certainly not a film for children and it erases some of the goofier elements that bothered me in Batman. Luckily, there is no villain dancing around the tunes of Prince, which was a giant relief. The plotline does get a bit weak in points, with the style masking the fact that the story is flying off the rails. Burton botches it at the end with the army of penguins and a funeral procession with six gigantic penguins, but I am willing to forgive due to how great the other 95% of this film is. Once again, Burton wastes the character of Commissioner Gordon, with the beloved ally only making a few minor appearances in all the action. Michael Gough shows up again as Alfred, the kind butler who realizes that he may have to aid Bruce in his battle against two foes looking to level Gotham. Walken is also a lot of fun as Shreck but he sort of clogs up the story at times. Overall, if Burton were hesitant to make this film, you’d never know it because it seems enthusiastically made. It also seems like he got a bit more freedom from the studio to really get weird. Once again, there are some minor tweaks to the stories, which will no doubt drive the fanboys like me nuts but I love this film because it dares to venture deeper into the darkness of the comic books. For that, Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film from Burton.

Grade: A

Batman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Batman (1989)

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.

Grade: A-

Batman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

by Steve Habrat

In the past few years, many critics and horror fans have complained about the sorry state of the vampire genre, which has embraced soap opera melodrama, bloodless confrontations, and abstinence. To me, vampires are not overly emotional, glittery-skinned models who drive their supped-up cars around like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. So, you can understand my frustration with all the negative reviews of director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a vampire film that re-imagines the greatest president of all time as an axe-swinging bloodsucker slayer. Also present in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter credits is Tim “Dark Shadows” Burton, taking the role of producer here, who recently seems hell-bent on restoring some honor to the vampire genre. You have to hand it to Burton and Bekmambetov as they dream up a moving graphic novel that isn’t afraid to bare its fangs and put its 3D effects to work. They also don’t forget to add a small bit of self-aware fun to all of the limb severing brutality.

After he sees his mother attacked by a bloodsucker, the young Abraham Lincoln (Played by Benjamin Walker) seeks out the help of a mysterious vampire hunter named Henry Sturgess (Played by Dominic Cooper), who reluctantly begins training Lincoln in the art of hacking up vamps. After ten years of training, Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he begins snooping out vampires for Sturgess. He shacks up with a local shopkeeper named Joshua Speed (Played by Jimmi Simpson), who gives Lincoln a money making job to fill his time in between swinging around an axe and reading law books. Lincoln soon gets the pleasure of meeting Mary Todd (Played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he quickly falls for despite warnings from Sturgess that he have “no friends or family.” Eager to find the vampire who killed his mother, Lincoln finally gets the order to confront and kill the man responsible, but he also catches the attention of Adam (Played by Rufus Sewell), an extremely deadly vampire who owns a plantation in New Orleans. Along with his sister Vadoma (Played by Erin Wasson), Adam sets out to find and kill Lincoln at any cost.

Throughout much of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film had been cropped down and condensed into a brief hour and forty-five minute runtime. It seems like Bekmambetov and Burton didn’t want the film to overstay its welcome but I honestly never grew tired of it. It felt like Bekmambetov took the Cliff Notes version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and made a film out of those rather than the actual book. I’d be curious to see what they left on the cutting room floor. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter moves at a breakneck pace and it springs the action on us almost instantly. Before you know it, our 16th president is prowling the misty landscapes searching for demons to hack into bloody chunks. The film has been accused of not stopping to laugh at itself and that it takes the action too seriously. While it does keep a somber tone firmly in place, Bekmambetov and Burton know that you have already laughed at the premise before the trailers have ended so why continue to harp on the joke. It would only run it into the group and then people would be complaining that the film falls back on its B-movie premise rather than getting serious.

While it is not as heavy on the horror, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turns up the action and delivers some seriously bloody battle scenes that will hold your attention. When Lincoln isn’t chopping down a tree with one swing of an axe, he is out spinning the axe around his hands like an airplane propeller and finding new ways to stylishly chop off a vamp’s limb. While Bekmambetov provides countless slow motion shots of bodies twirling through the air, he showers the audience is streams of blood erupting from slit throats and decapitations. The highlight showdown is a smack down on train that has Lincoln and his best friend William Johnson (Played by Anthony Mackie) teaming up against a swarm of roaring killers. They toss the silver laced axe back and forth to each other while Lincoln uses his bare fists and William wields dual pistols with silver bullets. There is also a nifty scene on a Civil War battlefield that has Confederate vampires charging into battle against terrified Union soldiers, who are massacred by the undead terrors in the blink of an eye.

Surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is filled with above avergae acting from its cast. It takes Walker a few minutes to really stand firmly in Lincoln’s shoes but once he does, he disappears into the role. Later in the film, Bekmambetov hides Walker behind the silliest fake beard ever captured on film. Dominic Cooper gets to have flamboyant fun as a vampire hunter with a secret. Sturgess always seems to be in the right place at the right time, always yanking Lincoln out of a tight spot. B-movie princess Winstead shows up as Lincoln’s first lady Mary Todd, who late in the game gets to play hardened griever whose eyes show the signs of a woman loosing faith in her husband. The only two characters that I felt there should have been more from were Simpson’s Speed and Mackie’s William, both who are likeable enough characters, but a tad embryonic, especially Speed. Rufus Sewell is fairly drab as the undead plantation owner Adam, especially when we see him next to smirking creep Jack Barts (Played by Marton Csokas), the man who killed Lincoln’s mother.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does have a few slip-ups in the production department. At times, we can clearly see the make-up smeared all over the faces of the characters and the contacts stuck in the eyes of Mary Todd. Bekmambetov uses a combination of CGI and authentic make-up applied to the undead antagonists, which makes them look pretty ferocious, especially when they erupt into shrieks that reveal rows of razor sharp fangs. There is also a far-fetched action sequence set in the middle of a thundering stampede of frightened horses. Yet Smith, who serves as the screenwriter here, doesn’t forget to add the clever little touch of the vampires being the ones supporting slavery, literally sucking the life out of helpless and innocent men, women, and children. It might be slightly obvious but at least they found an intriguing way of working the supernatural into historical events. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a perfect piece of filmmaking but in an age where Edward Cullen is a more prolific bloodsucker than Dracula, the B-movie thrills and gory winks found here are enough to make us forget about the sensitive skinny jean vamps with sparkly skin.

Grade: B-

Dark Shadows (2012)

by Steve Habrat

After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.

Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.

The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.

In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.

Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.

I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.

Grade: C-

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

by Steve Habrat

Much like 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, auteur Tim Burton was placed on this earth to also direct 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is based on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical. Burton’s 2007 version of the film, which naturally stars Johnny Depp in the lead role of a vengeful barber who enjoys slicing the throats of his customers, was not only one of the best films of the year in which it was released but also one of Tim Burton’s greatest films. Yes, I believe that it sits near the top with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Part of what makes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street such a great film is that Burton successfully appeals to the wine-and-cheese crowd as well as snagging the Hot Topic crowd, which has got to be a first in the history of motion pictures. In addition to the usually flawless style, costumes, and set design, Burton hits a home run with Depp, who scales back the odd and makes Sweeney one of his more subtle characters. My suspicion is that the scaled back approach is in response to the singing that is required of Mr. Depp, who took vocal lessons and erupts in a voice that is not perfect but fittingly rough around the edges for such a dark film.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to Benjamin Barker (Played by Johnny Depp), a barber who has returned to London after being banished for fifteen years for false charges by the wretched Judge Turpin (Played by Alan Rickman). It turns out that Turpin lusted after Barker’s wife, Lucy (Played by Laura Michelle Kelly), and wanted him out of the way so he could have her to himself. Assuming the alias “Sweeney Todd”, Barker makes his way to Fleet Street where he meets the equally demented Mrs. Lovett (Played by Helena Bonham Carter), who runs Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies.  Mrs. Lovett informs him that his wife committed suicide and that his teenage daughter Johanna (Played by Jayne Wisener) is being held against her will by Turpin. Whipping out his prized straight razor collection, Barker reopens his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies and together they begin trying to lure in Turpin and his overweight associate Beadle Bamford (Played by Timothy Spall) to exact their revenge. They also decide that they are going to grind up the bodies of their victims and put them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies to cover their tracks.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Burton’s bloodiest film since the Headless Horseman galloped through his interpretation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Sweeney Todd is a nonstop freak show of a film, one that sprays Burton’s favored candle wax-esque blood out onto the audience from the opened necks of Sweeney’s victims. It’s a nasty piece of work and I mean that as a compliment. Given that Sweeney Todd is also a musical, the interest that many may have in the film will pale because most have a difficult time suspending the disbelief to really enjoy it. Burton understands this so rather than easily casting a slew of musicians to belt out Sondheim and Wheeler’s tunes, he turns to a handful of unexpected actors to do the jig. Burton places Depp and Cater right up front, both who lack voices that would make angles weep, belting out with voices that don’t seem too theatrical for this macabre outing. At times, they are a bit shrill but their left of center sound compliments the gloom quite nicely. Burton does even things out in the subplot involving the young sailor Anthony Hope (Played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who does have a musical background) and Barker’s daughter Johanna (portrayed by Irish singer Wisener), both who do have stage quality pipes on them.

If Depp and Carter are unlikely choices in the leads, the background actors are just as wild. Rickman, who also played Snape in the Harry Potter films, is another voice you would never expect to hear. We already knew he could do mean but it is good to see him dive in deeper with the protection of an R-rating. The same could be said about fellow Potter costar Spall, whose nasally voice is just the right amount of ugly to fit his physical appearance. The other surprise comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, THAT Sacha Baron Cohen) as the Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli who hides a dirty little secret. Cohen gets to flex his musical talents, which while not stage worthy, are still fitting for this film. He adds some quirky humor to all the bloodshed but when his turn comes to get evil, Cohen rises to the occasion and leaves us wanting more of his villainous turn. There is also the young Ed Sanders in the role of Toby, the boy assistant to Pirelli who mixes his tender affection for Mrs. Lovett in with a stunning vocal performance.

Sweeney Todd is ultimately Depp’s world and everyone else is just wandering the filthy streets. With his cheerless voice and heavy eyes, Depp is rather detached—a far throws from his energetic turns in films like Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a way, his blank slate is a welcomed approach because I was quick to assume this would be another one of his freak flag performances. He is electric next to the pasty Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who gets to do energetic wicked. A scene in which Mrs. Lovett shares a fantasy in which she marries Todd is a standout. Depp’s mug drooping into a frown will have you in stitches. When Depp and Carter harmonize, they are a grizzled knock-out, locked in a dance of death where Mrs. Lovett wields a rolling pin and Sweeney clutches a butchers cleaver is marvelous both in its symbolic imagery (it’s a bit obvious but cool) and its choreography. Another sequence of astonishing choreography is when Depp wanders the streets and snarls at his future victims, his voice going from smooth soaring to being spit onto the cheeks of men who don’t acknowledge him.

A Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a lumbering musical horror film that has held up and still locks me in when I revisit it. Balletic in pacing and with an abundance of gothic style, the film will leave you feeling nice and grimy after you’ve viewed it. It is faintly sexy and gloriously macabre with a gut punch of a tragic ending. In my opinion, Sweeney Todd is one of the more accessible musicals I have ever seen—never erupting into implausible song and dance numbers that are overly cheesy and remove us from the moment. It has buckets of gore for the horror crowd and actually has a number of hair-raising moments that will jolt you. It’s far from sophisticated but by now most should know what to expect by Burton but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of Burton’s most consistent films. A real grotesque freak fest.

Grade: A-

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 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.

Grade: B+

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.