Aisle of the Damned: 10/17/16- Tim Burton’s X-Men

Tim Burton's X-MenDisney is weird and we talk a little bit about their current remake process as Kent discusses the new version of Pete’s Dragon, along with some other theatrical features like Morgan, Blair Witch and Tim Burton’s latest, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

We also discuss some films for the season with the “Bad Robot” restoration of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and the blu rays of Conjuring 2 and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Oh yeah, and we have our recommendations and our commentary on Paramount screwing the proverbial pooch again with Star Trek Beyond.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Dave Gardner- Mad Witch

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Frankenweenie

Black and white and 3D!

I really wish I could say I enjoyed Frankenweenie more than I did. Oh sure, I enjoyed parts of it. Some of them a lot. But the film, a retelling of Frankenstein, this time with a boy that brings his dog back from the dead, felt flat in terms of design and storytelling. In preparing this review, it definitely felt jumbled and a bit hard to edit, maybe because the film itself is such a mixed bag.

Frankenweenie is the second animated feature directed by Tim Burton after Corpse Bride. (Nightmare Before Christmas was produced by Burton, but directed by the highly talented Henry Selick; a fact I was yelling at the TV during a poorly fact-checked episode of the short-lived Trivial Pursuit game show a few years back.) It is also a remake of a live-action short he directed very early in his career and as an expansion of the short it isn’t unsuccessful. The new material definitely takes advantage of the animated medium that it has transitioned to. I’m a little curious why Sparky, the dog of the title, is a sculpted recreation of Burton’s work on Brad Bird’s Family Dog from Amazing Stories instead of a dachshund, like the title would imply. But let’s chalk that up to artistic lisence. It also relies heavily in design on nostalgia for his early stop-motion efforts like Vincent that have been included on issuances of Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs as bonus features. Unfortunately I’ve never found that particular phase of his design work to be as interesting as many of his fans and because of the drawbacks of that style, the figures used in the stop motion are sometimes a bit too simplified and stiff to really be expressive. Sometimes they come across like better animated Rankin-Bass puppets.

The voice cast also reflects this longing for his early career as much of it is made up of people from those films. Martin Short (Mars Attacks) in multiple roles, Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice), Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands) and the standout of the piece, Martin Landau (Ed Wood), who puts on his best bad Eastern European accent while telling parents at a PTA meeting that his teaching method for their children involves wanting to “crack their heads open to get at their brains.”

Part of the problem of Frankenweenie is that the new material starts out with a theme, science as a positive force in the world that should be looked at with fascination instead of fear, and that theme is completely lost in a science-run-amok finale that seems to negate it. Burton seems so eager to throw together his influences that he doesn’t really come up with a clear idea what story he’s telling, except for that familiar Disney chestnut, “love is good.” There is definitely some fun stuff here; obvious homage to the James Whale Franenstein films, a rather direct reference to everyone’s favorite turtle, Gamera, and some footage of Christopher Lee as Dracula from one of his Hammer films (I guess Burton is determined to get him into every one of his films in one way or another) but as we’ve seen in a lot of today’s media, simple homage does not make classic entertainment. If all Tarantino had were his riffs on his favorite films, there wouldn’t be much to him. This film is particularly strange because it almost seems like the bulk of what constitutes original material is made up of references to his own early work; the suburbs being the focal point of a sparse hell of ignorant and stupid people in which sports equals death and wow, why didn’t all these people understand my tortured, artistic childhood psyche?

One way Frankenweenie surprised me was just how dark and gross some of the gags were. I hesitate to reveal what they are, but for a PG-rated movie, a few of them had me squirming. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I suppose I would have to leave to the individual, but personally while some of them made me guffaw, some of them just made me kind of queasy. I suppose it’s all about the context of stop-motion’s inherent creepy factor since several of them wouldn’t have been out of place in Ren and Stimpy and wouldn’t have raised my eyebrows as much. Granted, I’m the last person that needs to comment about content given my rants about how much children’s entertainment and ‘family movies’ have been watered down.

It’s been a rough year for Burton in my eyes. Dark Shadows was one of the weakest films I saw in 2012. (Though it’s true I have mostly gone to things that I knew I was predisposed to. It’s the one advantage of not being paid to do what I do; to quote James Mason in Journey to the Center of the Earth, “That’s my consolation, Madame. I don’t have to look at it.”) While Frankenweenie was not a great film in my eyes, I do hope it marks a return of Burton to the projects of a more personal nature which I have enjoyed from him. While he’s always run hot and cold, I’ve liked several of his films over the years. His output over the last decade has undoubtedly been disappointing for a lot of us. Alice in Wonderland was a bloated mess. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was uninspired. If this project helps Burton return to his roots and reexplore what brought him to prominence as a filmmaker in the first place, maybe it’s worth it.

(Two and a half Damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Dark Shadows

At least nobody sparkles.

Once again, Johnny Depp has crawled up into the black, velvety warmth of Tim Burton’s goth-gina. And in doing so, he gives one of his best performances of recent memory in service of a truly mediocre film.

While the idea of Burton directing a film based on a 60’s soap opera surrounding a vampire certainly has a certain appeal on paper, the film itself has such an issue establishing tone whilst dropping and picking up plotlines seemingly at random, it ends up being an absolute mess (but without the bizarre charm that made Mars Attacks a darkly fun mess.)

To start with the things about the film that work, there are several good performances here. Despite his plasticine hair and make-up that makes him look like a character from a black and white horror film surrounded by a wash of tie-dyed color, Depp does give a winning performance as the long-gone patriarch of the Collins clan, the vampiric Barnabas. He plays funny and sympathetic, but never makes you forget he’s now a monster. He protects his family and tries to find justice, but he also is a remorseless killing machine. The rest of the cast puts in serviceable to excellent performances as well, but the problem is that many of them feel like they’re acting in different films. Chloe Grace-Moretz, and Jackie Earl Haley are both often funny, but they’re not given all that much to do. Bella Heathcote is lovely, but with the exception of a flashback that is one of the few moments of the film with real pathos, she mostly seems to exist (like her namesake from that other vampire property) to be a blank canvas on which Barnabas can project. Alice Cooper rehashes his cameo in Wayne’s World, but without the chance to be an actual character. Helena Bonham Carter possibly might be trying to become a middle-aged female version of Crispin Glover because her acting choices just get more and more nuts. And Eva Green shows that if any producers can’t get Gary Oldman to be a scenery-chewing villain, they can change the gender of the character and cast her. She seems to not just be in another movie, but possibly on another planet.

The design of the film actually works really well. The Collins mansion is beautifully realized and the seventies motifs manage to hold onto a lot of the mod ’60s, which seems absolutely perfect for Burton’s camera. It’s one of the better looking films he’s done in a while: Full, but never overdone like Alice in Wonderland.

It’s the plot where the film really falls apart as the film can’t decide what it is. Part of me wants to say it’s a commentary on the nature of soap opera in as much as characters and ideas are simply dropped in and from the film with little warning, but it’s either too subtle to truly come off that way or it was never intended as such. And the ending has so much about it that is completely out of left field, that it feels like there was a reel missing. Moretz’ character especially has a plot twist that simply comes with no warning. Green’s witch character (who cursed Barnabas in the first place to his fate) has such an odd turn at the end that it seems to have happened just because the script writers (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Seth Grahame-Smith being one of them) must have written themselves into a corner and just said “screw it.” It’s actually sad that something which, based on the trailer promised a wacky romp, ends up being far too maudlin for it’s own good so that when the over-the-top ending strikes, it’s simply too much at once.

At most, Dark Shadows is a cult film for cable and the Burton faithful.

(Two out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I'm on your five dollar bill, kids!

I found my enjoyment of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the new film by Wanted-helmer Timur Bekmambetov, to be a bit come and go. It’s an ‘almost’ film. Good, but not great.

Most of the issue seems to rest in the fact that the film has such disparaging tones from one moment to another that it’s hard to get a constant feel or atmosphere. (Granted, part of this may be the fact that I think there was something going on with the digital projection of the film; it seemed muddy, washed-out and slightly out of focus for most-to-all of its running time.) While it keeps a deadly serious tone throughout, it goes back and forth between melancholy historical drama (with corresponding atrocious “old age” makeup) and the kind of wildly exaggerated action sequences that Bekmambetov has excelled with in the past. The beginning of the film seems quite slow with a few punctuations of horror entered into it, taking some time to get the ball rolling. The sequences here often seem too short to be action sequences, but they’re cut like action sequences instead of horror. If they’d been the second, it may have helped in the end. The book the film is based on (by Pride and Predjudice and Zombies scribe Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted the screenplay himself) is much drier and, dare one say, boring compared with the promise of the concept. The film never sinks that low, though it seems to be lollygagging in places.

At least until a vampire picks up a horse and throws it at Abraham Lincoln.

If you have the same pleasure centers as me, you know how great that is. There are a few of these sublimely ridiculous moments in the film that elevate it to being nigh-grindhouse fun. When Honest Abe spins his axe around like a woodsman version of the swordsman from Raiders of the Lost Ark, splitting open skulls and decapitating everything in sight as blood flies across the screen… it’s something that truly has never been seen on film before. It’s also likely something you’ll never see again, for good or for ill. (For ill, in my opinion.)

Another good thing about the film’s mere existence is that while most vampire sagas these days are centered around tragi-romantic figures, the vampires at the end of Abe Lincoln’s silver axe are true monsters. They do not sparkle and they do not emit angst like a teenage ennui lighthouse trying to keep happiness from crashing into its shores. They exist to violently and matter-of-factly kill people, sometimes playing with their food before they eat it. They align themselves with the Confederate cause so that they can have an endless supply of worry-free meals from their slave populations, basically making themselves some of the vilest of movie villains in some time.

Something that goes both ways is the casting. Lincoln himself, played by Liam Neeson look-alike Benjamin Walker, is fine through most of the proceedings, though as previously stated, the make-up applied during a time-jump of many years is some of the most mediocre I’ve seen in a while. The same goes for the always pleasant to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead (of Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim), who plays Mary Todd with her usual charm. In an uncredited role, it’s great to see Alan Tudyk as Stephen Douglas. On the other hand, while I enjoyed Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark immensely, he just seems out of place here as Lincoln’s Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts. The same goes for some of the other characters, even the ones that historically did exist, like Joshua Speed and William Johnson (who especially feels shoehorned in as the film presents them as childhood friends.) (Fun fact: Oddly enough, a somewhat lengthy subplot of the book Lincoln meeting Edgar Allan Poe is completely excised from the film, which seems like something that would have been right at home among the proceedings.)

Regardless, for all it’s ups and downs and goods and bads, when all is said and done, it’s a movie that, while not perfect, is something that I’m very glad exists for the sheer audacity of itself. We may get several R-rated action and horror films every year, but few with true imagination. Amidst all the Paranormal Activity rip-offs and sequels and the aging steroid icons, it’s truly a breath of fresh air to see a man in a stove-pipe hat hacking up the undead.

(Three out of five stars)