Monday, March 15, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

The new Alice in Wonderland is tedious, poorly staged and unimaginatively shot. In other words, it's another of many misfires from critics' darling Tim Burton. Burton typically has interesting ideas that are undone by his formal inadequacies as a director and a storyteller (among other problems, his scenes are never fluid, always relying on two-shot edits, and his films run on at least 20 minutes too long). But Alice is bereft even of any good ideas, unless you count his tweaking of the narrative from its original "journey of the innocent" to "return of the teen feminist." But even here, the title character is mostly a cipher, blandly reacting to the "wacky" supporting characters who are rendered mostly in cheap, jerky CGI. Worse, Burton's desperation to make the material more "edgy" leads him to paint every scene in grim palettes of grays and plums. Since 3D glasses tend to darken the frame by about 20%, everything is even muddier than intended. You used to at least be able to count on Burton for a florid, lovely-at-the-edges mise-en-scène. Not anymore. As for the rest Burton's oeuvre, it's pocked with similar sloppiness and unrealized possibilities. A closer look at two of his most celebrated films...

Edward Scissorhands.
Arguably Burton's most championed work, the film has a lot going for it. The cotton candy vision of suburbia was quite new in its time, before derivative crap like Cat in the Hat made it cliché. And Johnny Depp's performance remains the finest of his career -- innocence and loss perfectly realized in his pinched, silent-era expressions. Buster Keaton would be proud. But the critical giltterati chose to ignore the embarrassing final half hour in which the neighborhood bully, played with a fat layer of "must-rid-myself-of-16 Candles-awkwardness" ham by Anthony Michael Hall, gets in a deadly confrontation with Edward. All warmth and ingenuity are drained away as Burton hastily solves all problems with a standard-issue bad guy death. What a shame.

This late 80s hit could have been so much better. Burton clearly wanted to get back to the darkness of Bob Kane's original comic book series. But he couldn't completely escape a fondness for the "POW! SPLAT!" campy essence of the 60s television series. The result was a confused mess (as opposed to Christopher Nolan's brilliant films with Christian Bale). Burton got things right with the casting of Michael Keaton and the fetid stench of Gotham City's police corruption. He got things wrong with Jack Nicholson, whose performance went squarely for the Burgess Meredith/Frank Gorshin paradigm. Still, the biggest problem with Batman remains Burton's biggest problem as a director. He cannot stage an action sequence, even a little bit. When Batman takes "flight" or chases down a villain, the scene demands a fluidity and elegance commensurate with Anton Furst's grand guignol production design. Unfortunately, Burton resorts to inset cuts (see Batman lifting off, cut to his feet landing) which effectively kills rhythm and detonates the main character's almost superhuman physicality.

I have far more hope for Burton's next film, Frankenweenie, an allegedly animated remake of his cute 1984 short film. Pure animation, as opposed to the hybrid mess of AIW, clearly relaxes Burton. In this world, where he started his career as a Disney concept artist, he finds the emotional fringes of his characters. That's why The Corpse Bride remains Burton's best work.

Sometimes, it takes the stroke of a pen and the tap of a computer to find the beat of a heart.

1 comment:

H. Brandt said...

To for bad your geneous does not see his geneous. think that burton would figr you out!