Friday, July 9, 2010

A Loss of Faith: Tim Burton

| by Allan Stackhouse |

I am beginning to lose faith in Tim Burton. Whereas a decade ago, I believed he had the makings of an auteur, I now believe he is an artist who has become blinded by his personal relationships with his stars and lost in his own visions for his films. I will give him the benefit of the doubt in not saying I believe he's doing most films for the paycheck, although his harshest critics would not hesitate to do so. Beginning in 2001's Planet of the Apes, Mr. Burton has consistently directed movies that are nowhere near the quality of his products in the 1990s.

The draw of Tim Burton is his ability to invoke performances out of his actors that no one else in the world can get while in a style that's creepy – sometimes morbid – yet captivating at the same time. Jack Nicholson's Joker, Danny Devito's Penguin, Paul Reubens' Pee Wee, Michael Keaton's Batman, the list goes on and on even into the supporting cast. His brain in the '90s used to be able to create characters no one else in the world could imagine. These, in contrast to 2010's Alice in Wonderland, stand so far out that it's hard to believe that the same person directed Alice.

Before Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton blessed the world with unbelievably good movies: the cult hit Beetlejuice (the line for which at this year's Cinespia was nearly a mile long), Batman and Batman Returns (my favorite Batman films), the marvel of Edward Scissorhands, and the brilliant Ed Wood. While this post may critique his more recent films, allow me the opportunity to honor his past films now. They displayed mastery of the art of storytelling, control of his actors performances, and wonderfully imaginative imagery. All of these skills are ones that I aspired to during film school through present time.

When a director finds a muse in an actor, the results can often be great. James Cameron found it in Linda Hamilton, David Fincher finds it in Brad Pitt, and Woody Allen found it in Dianne West, Diane Keaton, Penélope Cruz, Mia Farrow, Scarlett Johansson, Samantha Morton, Anjelica Huston, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, and Mira Sorvina. I will assume that Michael Keaton was at one point a muse of Tim Burton's. However, with Michael, he displayed restraint in his casting in future roles where he had no place and control of his performances where he did star. With Johnny Depp, one of Tim's current muses, I assume that Mr. Burton believes that there is some sort of synergy occurring. For fans of this duo, watching this must be an enchanting experience. I can imagine the puddles of drool of the PAs who work on the features. For those not fans of this duo, the result feels like something we've seen a million times. Like those commercials.

If you have not yet gathered, let me tell you clearly something that you may have to read twice: I am not a Johnny Depp fan. If you are a fan his, that's great. You will find nothing in this article that bashes him. I simply do not understand the appeal. Call it ESP but I'm almost positive that the extent of all of Johnny's current directors is, “Do your thing.”

Tim Burton has now ruined two classic films by remaking or retooling them and that is two too many. With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we all were set up to believe that there would be more than just colorful sets. Gene Wilder isn't one of my favorite actors but assuming he could just replace his performance with that Johnny Depp schtick or whatever it is that people like so much about him was assuming too much. Charlie was made a spectacle of in Epic Movie, a movie I found much more enjoyable, and it was worthy of the roast.

With Helena Bonham Carter, she is cast for no other reason than being the director's current girlfriend. Upon looking at her filmography, I realized that she is primarily a British actress yet her performances in the roles do little for me. She does well enough in the Harry Potter films as Bellatrix Lestrange but I have noticed no other roles that stood out to me. Helena and Johnny's repeated and obvious miscasting have become a garden of weeds where roses once grew: the Mad Hatter, Victor Van Dort, the Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd. Bleh. A theme among these particular roles is that they are modeled after a previous work, in the case of Victor Van Dort, a person. There's no crime in retooling a previous work and putting your own spin on things in but the execution having more of an empty high-concept feel rather than a place of originality or a spin that intends to introduce the characters in ways more crucial than look is what I am seeking. And not getting, by the way.

The Corpse Bride was just a wasted attempt to recapture the magic he created with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Granted the bar is VERY high. As in #237 on the IMDB Top 250 high, but designing a character out of your best friend's image and persona and expecting the film to be able to stand upon just that leg was nowhere near acceptable.

I will always have respect for Tim Burton's ability to successfully navigate his roles as producer, director, animator, AND writer but his recent products are simply not up to snuff for me. Perhaps its his own fault for setting the bar so high with films that were high quality and free of his personal relationships' influence. While I do not doubt Tim Burton's professionalism, I firmly believe that the comfort he experiences with Johnny and Helena is clouding his better judgment. I know those skills of his are still in there. I have the Jack Nicolson/Kim Basinger dance sequence clearly in my head but the idle dialogue between Mia Wasikowska and each of her costars is there too.

I'm well aware of the challenges of staying true to oneself as an artist, having studied Hitchcock in college and the decline of his work. However, I recall during the introduction of the class and drawing the conclusion for myself at the end of it that the worst thing I could say about Hitchcock's films was that they were less good. These modern Tim Burton films are not less good. They assume that I don't remember how good his previous work was and will simply accept sub-standard films because it has his name on the posters. I will not.

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