Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s the modern day, albeit a stylised version that’s stuck in the 1960s. The story takes place in the town of New Holland.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all. This black-and-white, stop-motion animated film is a parody of Universal Pictures’ pre-war horror films, especially Frankenstein (1931). A young boy called Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is distraught when his dog Sparky is run over and killed. So, inspired by a science teacher called Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), he resurrects the pooch via the electrical charge of a lightning bolt – ie, in the same way as in the 1931 classic. There are two minor Dracula connections. Victor’s next-door neighbour is a girl called Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder, coincidentally one of the stars of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And in one scene Mr and Mrs Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) watch 1958’s Dracula on TV.

Best performance: The stop-motion animators and cinematographer Peter Sorg. The high-contrast, black-and-white photography is very Universal Horror, and the physical puppets and sets really are quite beautiful.

Best bit: The newly resurrected Sparky wags his tail so furiously it falls off. “I can fix that,” says Victor.

Review: A fairly routine animated film, in that there’s plenty of whimsy, a lot of visual humour, and flashes of sweetness and sadness. With the story predictable enough for kids to follow, you start counting off the nods and winks. A character who looks like Vincent Price? A corpse resurrected during a lightning storm? A haircut like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein? A climax in a burning windmill? Check, check, check, check.

Six robotic buckets out of 10

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Planet of the Apes (2001, Tim Burton)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: This movie could be viewed as a second adaptation of the 1963 novel La Planète des Singe, a remake of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, or simply a waste of everyone’s time. The story starts aboard a United States Air Force space station called Oberon in the optimistically chosen year of 2029. But the bulk of the action is set on an alien planet in the far future. The end of the film then brings a surprise twist, though not the same one as in the 1968 film. The action moves to the Earth of 2029, but history has been changed. Apes now rule this world too. It’s never explained how. Or why. It’s a silly sequel-baiting coda that was never followed up.

Humans: Our lead character is Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg, who dropped out of Ocean’s Eleven to star in this sludge). He works with primates being trained for space missions. After one of them is sent out in a small pod and falls through a wormhole, Davidson follows and ends up on a planet where intelligent apes are in charge and humans are kept as slaves. It’s not all bad news, though: he soon meets a cute woman called Daena (Estella Warren; what she lacks in acting talent she makes up for in standing around looking confused in an adorable kind of way). Kris Kristofferson plays her dad and there are a few other featured people. In a change from the 1968 film, the humans of this world can talk – which makes the apes’ control of them seem even more cruel. We learn that the humans used to be the dominant species, and once Davidson tracks down his space ship he infers the planet’s backstory. The ship crashed here centuries before Leo did (somehow…) and populated the planet with intelligent apes.

Apes: The ape masks are well designed and more articulate than in the original movies. Also, more thought has gone into giving the characters non-human postures and movements. But little of that work was worth it… Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) is the most interesting of the apes. She’s sensitive, smart and opposes the harsh treatment of humans. She buys Davidson and Daena for her father, Senator Sandar (David Warner), then helps them escape. Meanwhile, General Thade (Tim Roth) is a warmongering chimpanzee; he also has a thing for Ari, but she’s not interested. In one scene, Thade’s father is played by – get ready to prevent your sides from splitting – Charlton Heston. He even has a jokey reference to the original movie: “Damn them all to hell!” he says before dying. Also worth mentioning is Limbo (Paul Giamatti), who’s a slaver and the comic relief – two things that don’t often go together.

Review: This film was a turning point for director Tim Burton. He was coming off a decade-plus run of wonderful movies – but this has none of the wit, style or creepiness of Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or Sleepy Hollow. It feels like a studio film where creative decisions have been so flattened out by committee that nothing of any distinction remains. There’s cheesy dialogue, paper-thin characters, painfully weak comedy, a score that drones on, and a general absence of wonder. Wahlberg is a dreadful leading man, lacking charisma, while many exterior scenes are shot indoors and feel drab and lifeless. Rubbish.

Four skankiest, scabbiest, scuzziest humans out of 10

Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Corrupt industrialist Max Shreck manipulates the Penguin, a former circus performer with a grudge against Gotham City, for his own ends – and also injures his secretary so much she ends up transforming into Catwoman.

Good guys: We first see Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton again) sat alone, brooding in the dark. Aside from this moment and a short action scene that follows, he’s not in the film’s opening 34 minutes – and not a huge amount afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a title character getting less screen time in a superhero movie. In a nice touch, Bruce is initially sympathetic towards the Penguin because they’re both orphans. He refers to Vicki from the previous film and tells us their relationship petered out.

Bad guys: There are two Big Bads. Danny DeVito is terrifically freaky and unhinged as the Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot. The character is born in the opening scene, but then abandoned by his parents because he’s deformed. The child ends up in a sewer and is adopted by some penguins. Thirty-three years later, he orchestrates mayhem from his hidden lair in Gotham Zoo; when he kidnaps businessman Max Schrek (Christopher Walken, uneven), the two end up joining forces. The Penguin wants to come out of hiding, find his parents and learn his real name. He knows about Max’s dodgy dealing because of the evidence Max throws away: “You flush it, I flaunt it!”. With Max’s help, the Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham, but when the population turns against him, he plans to kill every first-born child in the city (a knowing reference to King Herod: the film is set at Christmas). Schrek himself has mad hair, wears leather gloves to business meetings, is well liked by the public but is blackmailing the incumbent mayor. He wants Bruce Wayne to invest in a plan to build a new power plant, which will actually steal energy from Gotham City; he later learns that Wayne is Batman but is then electrocuted to death.

Other guys: A victim as much as a villain, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the star of the show. The character starts out as Selina Kyle, Schrek’s lowly secretary (“Lowly assistant,” as she puts it), who gets caught up in the opening action scene and meets Batman. She owns a cat called Miss Kitty and has an unseen boyfriend who abandons her at Christmas. “I guess I should have let him win that last racquetball game,” she laments. After she finds out about her boss’s evil plan, he pushes her out of a skyscraper window. She lands in an alley, cut and bruised but alive, where a pack of cats swarm around her. Heading home, she goes through some kind of psychotic episode: she trashes her flat, constructs a tight-fitting, black, leather outfit and creates a new persona: Catwoman. As her alter ego, she clashes with Batman and teams up with the Penguin to get rid of him – but at the same time, Selina is attracted to Bruce Wayne. Annette Bening was originally cast in the role, but then became pregnant. Sean Young campaigned for the job, famously turning up unannounced at Tim Burton’s office in a homemade Catwoman outfit. But Pfeiffer got the call, and she’s sensational as both the dowdy Selina and her erotic alter ego. Returning from the preview film are Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, while the most notable member of the Penguin’s gang is played by an underused Vincent Schiavelli (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ghost, Tomorrow Never Dies, the Humbug episode of The X Files). Pee-wee Herman cameos as the Penguin’s dad, reportedly replacing 1960s Penguin Burgess Meredith, who was too ill.

Best bits:

* The baby Oswald, unseen in his cage, pulling a cat through the bars and presumably eating it.

* Another masterpiece of a score from Danny Elfman.

* Selina meekly pouring coffee, and trying to not get in the way, at the board meeting.

* The Batman logo shining through the window at Wayne Manor.

* Vincent Schiavelli and the collection of macabre, grotesque henchmen dressed as skeletons, devils and clowns.

* A goon holding Selina prisoner. Batman fires a dart attached to a wire at him, which imbeds itself in the wall. “You missed!” the bad guys says. Batman pulls on the wire, detaching a huge chunk of masonry, which clobbers him.

* Selina finding a taser and testing it on the unconscious henchman.

* Selina enters her flat. “Honey, I’m home!” she shouts. Then, to herself: “I forgot, I’m not married.” She then listens to her answerphone messages. The fourth one is: “Hey, Selina, this is yourself calling to remind you, honey, that you have to come all the way back to the office unless you remembered to bring home the Bruce Wayne file because the meeting’s on Wednesday…”

* Selina, after her accident, returning to her flat and – in a daze – going through the same motions as the earlier scene.

* The Penguin, on his parents: “I was their number-one son and they treated me like number two.”

* The first appearance of Catwoman. “Be gentle,” she says to a mugger she’s confronting. “It’s my first time.” She beats him up, then says: “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”

* The Penguin, huffing and wheezing and eating a raw fish, being introduced to a room full of election campaign staff.

* Catwoman going mental in a department store – using her whip to first knock the heads off mannequins, then as a skipping rope.

* Catwoman back-flipping up to Batman and Penguin and saying, “Miaow…” The building behind her then explodes.

* Batman knocking Catwoman off a roof… and her landing in an open truck full of kitty litter.

* The Penguin finding Catwoman on his bed. “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for!”

* Catwoman straddling Batman and licking his face. Oh, my.

* The Penguin taking remote control of the Batmobile.

* Bruce chastising Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave in the previous film – a scene that feels like it was included to explain away a plot hole.

* While dancing at a party, Bruce and Selina each figure out the other’s secret identity. “Does this mean we have to start fighting?” Selina asks.

* The Penguin’s army of actual penguins.

* Max pleading with an angry Catwoman: “I don’t know what you want, but I know I can get it for you… Money? Jewels? A big ball of string?”

Review: What an odd film. It often feels like key bits of it are missing – especially when it comes to dramatising events and explaining characters’ motivations. But maybe that’s just because the film isn’t too concerned with story. The plot is simply a fake Christmas tree to hang some nice decorations on. Those decorations are the film’s design work and its guest characters. The former is dazzling. Sets, props, costumes and lighting are simply glorious. We get hints of German Expressionism mixed in with a bizarre fairy-tale world. It’s even more heightened and surreal than the preceding film. The villains, meanwhile, take all the focus. The Penguin and Catwoman form an entertaining double act about halfway through, while Batman himself is generally sidelined. It struck me, actually, that there was a massive missed opportunity here: to do a superhero film totally from the villains’ point of view. We do get close to that, but I suspect not on purpose. Also, the lack of any roots holding up the tree – no genuine emotion, no rigorous plotting – is a serious problem. The dialogue falls flat more often than it takes flight. And the longer the movie goes on, the less it all means. While watching the opening half-hour or so, I wrote ‘8?’ down in my notes as a score out of 10. A little later, I crossed that out and put ‘7’. By the time the movie crawled to an unengaging climax, I’d changed it to…

Six references to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari out of 10.

Next time: Batman goes animated.

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In Gotham City, the Caped Crusader comes up against a maniacal master criminal called The Joker…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne – a multimillionaire philanthropist who has a secret crime-fighting alter ego – is played by Michael Keaton. It’s a quirky casting choice and is all the more interesting for it. Keaton can do both light and pensive. Early on in the story, Bruce meets photographer Vicki Vale and falls for her. After they sleep together, she wakes to find him hanging upside-down from a metal bar – it’s almost like he wants her to guess his secret identity. He’s tempted to just tell her, but she works it out before he plucks up the courage. Bruce is haunted by a childhood memory of his parents being killed in front of him. In a clever twist on the established Batman continuity, he soon works out the Joker was the murderer. We see Batman in action a fair amount, usually with ingenious gadgets and cool vehicles. Vicki, meanwhile, is played by Kim Basinger. (Sean Young was originally cast, but was injured early into filming and couldn’t continue.) We first see her legs, propped up on a desk as she reads a copy of the Gotham Globe. She’s come to the city to investigate the rumours about the Batman and teams up with a journalist called Knox, who ticks the friend-who-fancies-the-girl-but-isn’t-a-serious-option-for-romance box. Vicki meets Bruce Wayne at a benefit party and, after an initially awkward date, they spend the night together. The Joker develops an obsession with Vicki and she’s often in danger.

Bad guys: Jack Napier, aka the Joker, is played by Jack Nicholson, who gets top billing and was paid tens of millions of dollars. He’s fantastic. “Wait until they get a load of me!” Jack boasts at one point: he’s off-the-chart mental, unpredictable, dangerous and dominates the frame. When we meet Napier, he’s a gangster who’s sleeping with his boss’s girlfriend and bribing cops. After he’s set up to be killed by his angry boss, he falls into a vat of corrosive chemicals. He survives, but with a reconstructed face now stuck in a rictus grin and his skin burnt white. Driven insane by his experience, he kills his boss, reinvents himself as the Joker, and takes over the mob business. His diabolical plan involves flooding the consumer market with toxic beauty and health products. (In the flashback scene to Jack as a young man, he’s played by Hugo Blick, who went on to write TV shows Operation Good Guys, Marion & Geoff, The Shadow Line and The Honourable Woman.)

Other guys: Michael Gough plays Bruce’s butler, father figure and general confidant, Alfred. Pat Hingle appears as Commissioner Gordon. Jack Palance plays mob lord Grissom. Billy Dee Williams cameos as District Attorney Harvey Dent, a character deliberately being seeded for a larger role in a sequel (when, in the event, he was recast). Robert Wuhl plays journalist Knox and Jerry Hall plays the Joker’s moll, Alicia.

Best bits:

* Danny Elfman’s macabre incidental music.

* The title sequence: sweeping camera moves across an ornate Batman logo, which I learnt last week my friend Fraser’s housemate helped build.

* The realisation of Gotham City. It’s an Art Deco/Gothic/retro/futuristic/industrial masterpiece, an equal of Blade Runner’s LA in terms of how darkly beautiful it is. It’s fascinating, textured, detailed and strange. The film’s art direction won an Oscar.

* Oh, look: it’s Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter from Star Wars) playing a bloke struggling to find a taxi. I met Hagon once and pestered him with questions about Star Wars.

* Batman glides silently into view in the background as two muggers divide their loot.

* “What are you?!” “I’m Batman!”

* Jack admires himself in the mirror. His girlfriend says, “You look fine.” He glares at her: “I didn’t ask.”

* Oh, look: it’s Denis Lill playing a newspaper hack.

* Our first sight of Vicki Vale. Wowzers.

* Vicki and Knox ridiculing Bruce Wayne as he listens behind them.

* Jack’s acid-burnt hand reaching out of the water.

* Bruce and Vicki having dinner while sitting at a different ends of a ridiculously long table. When Vicki asks if he likes eating in this room, Bruce admits he’s never been in it before.

* Jack at the back-street plastic surgeon. When he sees his rebuilt face, he wanders off laughing uncontrollably.

* The reveal of the Joker as he gleefully shoots Grissom dead.

* Jerry Hall’s faint when she sees that Jack’s not dead.

* The Joker shaking a colleague’s hand and electrocuting him to a crisp. (“I got a live one here!”)

* Oh, look: it’s Red Dwarf’s Mac MacDonald as one of the Joker’s henchmen.

* The Joker throws a tantrum: “Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed as a bat gets all my publicity?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Trinity Wells from Doctor Who as a TV director.

* The scene at the museum/restaurant. Vicki thinks she’s meeting Bruce, but a waiter brings a box to her table. In it is a gas mask and note that reads: “Put this on right now.” Smoke fills the room, knocking everyone out (or killing them?), then the Joker and his goons burst in. They hit play on a ghetto blaster and, to the sound of a Prince song, delight in defacing the museum’s artwork.

* Vicki throws water in the Joker’s face and he acts like he’s in agony, then turns to her and says, “Boo!”

* The Batmobile.

* Bruce’s ham-fisted attempt to tell Vicki who he really is.

* Bruce confronts the Joker in Vicki’s flat. The Joker simply doesn’t know what to make of him.

* The flashback to Bruce’s parents being murdered – and the revelation that Jack Napier was the shooter.

* Vicki turns up in the Batcave.

* The Joker refers to Batman as the ‘junior birdman’. Apt, given Keaton’s most recent film.

* The Joker dancing away to a Prince track on the carnival float.

* The Batwing.

* Forcing Vicki to dance with him, the Joker says into her ear: “It’s as though we were made for each other. Beauty and the Beast. Course, if anyone else calls you Beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.”

* Trying to distract the Joker, Vicki pretends to flirt with him and even ducks down towards his trouser department. The Joker has an expression of serene expectation… until Batman punches him in the mouth.

Review: Nineteen-eighty-nine was a busy year for geek cinema. There were new adventures for Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, James Bond, the crew of the Enterprise, the Karate Kid, Riggs & Murtaugh and the Ghostbusters: manna from heaven for a 10-year-old fanboy like me. But Batman still stood out and felt like an *enormous* event. There was a smart advertising campaign built around an ubiquitous logo and a tie-in album from Prince. There was talk of a dark, serious take on a character I only knew as campy and cartoony. And there was a sense of danger from the fact the film was one of the first to get the new ‘12’ certificate. Well, over a quarter of a century later (Jesus, really?), it absolutely stands the test of time. It sweeps you along right from the start. The dialogue’s crisp and the story’s never dull. It’s an origin story, but done economically with flashbacks and illusions rather than a drawn-out opening act. It’s dark, but also has a huge sense of fun. What especially impresses me is the film’s sense of timelessness. It partly looks like the past – men wear 1950s suits, coats and hats; there are newspaper hacks in busy, vibrant offices; and the cars look retro. But it’s all mixed in with 1980s glamour, technology and TV news crews. It’s also mostly a black-and-white world, so any splashes of colour – especially when connected to the Joker – pop out. Director Tim Burton may have been coasting lately (last great film? Sleepy Hollow?), but he used to be something special. And this is one of his best.

Ten wonderful toys out of 10.

Next time: Miaow!