Welcome to Episode #45 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our forty-fifth episode, we dive back into the risky, exciting world of Skype recordings & guest hosts. Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, from the Oscar hopefuls to the never-to-be-properly-distributed rarities. Also, Brandon makes Pete Moran of the We Love to Watch podcast watch the classic Tim Burton debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) for the first time. Enjoy!
-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman
Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Batman (1989) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 155 of the first edition hardback, Ebert describes a notorious, boisterous publicist who worked for Warner Bros. named Frank Casey. In one anecdote about the larger-than-life character, he recounts, “It was of my opinion Casey had never seen a movie all the way through. Unlike other publicists, who mostly used screening rooms, Casey liked to take over a theater like the World Playhouse for the Chicago preview of a big movie like Batman and invite all his friends from the worlds of business and politics. Only at a Warner Bros. movie were you ever likely to see Mayor Daley, several alderman, and various Pritzkers.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Gotham City created in Batman is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame something more memorable doesn’t happen there. Batman is a triumph of design over story, style over substance – a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about. All of the big moments in the movie are pounded home with ear-shattering sound effects and a jackhammer cutting style, but that just serves to underline the movie’s problem, which is a curious lack of suspense and intrinsic interest. Batman discards the recent cultural history of the Batman character – the camp 1960s TV series, the in-joke comic books – and returns to the mood of the 1940s, the decade of film noir and fascism.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times
There have been four major live action Batman franchises to hit theaters since the cartoonishly campy days of Adam West in the 1960s. All of them have Tim Burton’s greasy fingerprints all over their basic DNA. Burton’s 1989 Batman adaptation was such a highly stylized smash hit that Gotham has never looked the same onscreen since. His highly specific production style of gothy art deco gloom mixed with subtly campy sadism has shaped everything Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done visually with the Batman property in the decades since, and even launched an entire, highly-acclaimed animated TV series. Every Batman adaptation since Burton’s seems to like have inadvertently mirrored more than just that seminal work’s high-end Hot Topic gloom, however. They’ve also adopted his pattern of when to intensify personal vision instead of bending to corporate-minded marketability with each respective franchise.
Tim Burton’s Batman has a striking visual palette & overall tone to it that’s directly tied to the director’s personal wheelhouse as an auteur. Still, there’s something about the relatively vanilla romance at the film’s center, the shoehorned-in Prince soundtrack, and the blatantly brand-conscious imagery of the bat signal that reeks of movie-by-committee studio interference. Batman ’89 feels like Burton delivering exactly what studios want (with a strong personal spin, of course) so that he can prove himself worthy to fully take the reins in a second, wilder, more personalized feature. 1992’s Batman Returns is pure Tim Burton, an untethered, perverted goth kid rampage that broke free from studio exec influence, a much more striking & idiosyncratic work than its predecessor. Every live action Batman adaptation since has seemed to follow this pattern. Joel Schumacher’s jokey-but-tame Batman Forever isn’t nearly half as memorable as the oversexed camp fest of its far superior Batman and Robin follow-up. (It’s time we all admit that’s a great movie; don’t @ me.) Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade, while its predecessor is a much more muted drama about Batman’s salad days at ninja school. Even recently (and I’m expecting even more flack for this than the Schumacher praise), the Zach Snyder-helmed Batman films got a lot more lively & delightfully weird in Suicide Squad than they started off as in the punishingly dull Dawn of Justice. Burton has laid out a clear blueprint for any & all would-be Batman auteurs arriving in his wake: try to keep it somewhat calm & familiar in the first film, then swing for the fences with the follow-up.
I don’t mean to imply here that Batman ’89 is in any way a bland, forgettable film. It does feel homogenized around the edges to meet major studio blockbuster expectations, but the weird little heart at the center of the film is still unmistakably Burton. The stop motion retractable shields on the Batmobile are pure Burton aesthetic, a visual calling card also matched in the film’s matte paintings & miniatures. He also frames a lot of the film with an excess of Dutch angles, which is not only a natural aspect of adapting a comic book property for the screen, but also consistent with the childlike tone of his then-contemporary works like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Besides the visual calling cards that let us know as an audience that this is A Tim Burton Joint, you can also feel the director’s personality strongly reflected in the casting. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a reclusive billionaire weirdo is a smart deviation from the square-jawed, American Hero caricature Adam West (expertly) brought to the screen before him, bringing a calmer version of his demonic Beetlejuice performance to the role. Where Burton really finds his footing in leaving a personal stamp on Batman as a product wouldn’t be with the titular hero at all, however. The director’s talents were much better suited for bringing to life the cartoon cruelty of the Caped Crusader’s sworn enemy, one of superhero comics’ most infamous villains.
Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the key to understanding Batman ’89 both as a Burton film and as a monolithic influence on the adaptations that would follow. Burton is obviously more interested in the villains of the Batverse than he is in Bruce Wayne himself, except maybe when the billionaire weirdo is exposed to be just another oddly kinky monster terrorizing the city he supposedly protects. A large part of what makes Batman Returns feel more like a pure Burton vision than its predecessor is that the director just fully gives himself into this impulse, wilfully allowing Batman to become a background character while total freaks like Danny DeVito’s Penguin & Michelle Pheiffer’s Catwoman run amok. Nicholson’s The Joker is a great preview of that future Utopia of gothy camp. He is as genuinely terrifying here as he is in his career-making role in The Shining, especially in scenes where he covers his clown-white face with flesh-toned make-up. He turns the character into a sadistic form of clowning, filling the squirting flower of his lapel with a corrosive acid & staging a sinisterly warped version of the Macy’s Day Parade with poison-filled balloons. To do Batman exactly right, you have to mix a little camp theatricality in to lighten the gloomy glowering of an otherwise depressive property. This is exactly why Heath Ledger’s own unhinged Joker performance exalted The Dark Knight and also why the utterly joyless Dawn of Justice put many theater-goers to sleep. Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the first sign that Burton understood the need for that balance. You can hear it in his half-goofy, half-chilling catchphrase “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” You can feel it in a sequence where he defaces fine art with bathroom-quality graffiti to a funky Prince track and somehow makes the tone fit the film, despite all odds. In a lot of ways Batman ’89 feels like a dry run for better things to come in Returns, but everything Nicholson does onscreen in the mean time is just as timelessly entertaining as the best of what was to follow.
Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of either of Tim Burton’s Batman productions. He praised the director’s work as “a triumph of design” & atmosphere, but ultimately dismisses it as a style over substance affair. Personally, I always value style over substance. I agree with Ebert on some level that the Bruce Wayne narrative arc never matches the eccentricity of Burton’s vision in Batman, likely due to the homogenizing effect of studio influence, but I can’t dismiss the value of that vision in & of itself. Burton’s mixed media visual accomplishments in Batman are stunning to this day, a distinct personal artistry that doesn’t require a strong narrative to justify its for-its-own-sake pleasures. Although he wouldn’t make his most fully personal Batman film until Returns, you can still feel his own idiosyncrasies creeping in through the influence of Nicholson’s goofy-scary Joker and an overall production design unmistakably of his own. I’ll always hold Returns in higher regard than Batman ’89, but I still greatly respect this landmark work for the ways it fights to be memorably bizarre despite studio influence, the way it envisions an entirely new & instantly definitive look for its hero’s playground, and the way it serves as a basic blueprint for all Batman cinema that followed.
Roger’s Rating: (2/4, 50%)
Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)
Next Lesson: Galia (1966)
I’ll admit up front that I’m a little more positive on Tim Burton’s post-Sleepy Hollow career than most, finding at least one enjoyable film from the director’s late-career releases (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Big Eyes, Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie) for every insufferable, uninspired one (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes). Burton was on an incredible hot streak in his 80s & 90s run, delivering one incredible work after another, so there’s a lot of pressure on his 00s & 2010s output that makes it suffer under scrutiny. However, divorced from the context of his earlier work, this second phase of his career is at least at a 50/50 average for me, which isn’t so bad considering the careers of other big budget Hollywood directors on his name recognition level. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny. The expectations resonating from Burton’s early work simply have way too much impact on the reception of his more current releases.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children & its YA source material are, essentially, goth X-Men for kids. Instead of mutant abilities, the kids have “peculiarities,” also contained in their genes, which more or less give them . . . mutant abilities. I guess the main difference there is that their peculiarities all have a sort of horrific sideshow quality to them: reanimating corpses, hidden jaws packed with sharp teeth, bodies full of bees, etc. It’s easy to see how Burton could want to merely luxuriate in this mansion full of little weirdos instead of chasing a plot, but Peculiar Children actually has a lot going on in its story structure. Cyclical time travel, intergenerational romance, mental disorder, alternative Holocaust narratives, and secret societies of shapeshifting demons who want to eat peculiar children’s eyeballs all swirl together to create one overwhelming kids-against-the-world conflict that admittedly trades in emotional resonance for large, complex ideas & haunted house imagery. Like with last year’s Crimson Peak, however, I was more than okay with swapping out emotional deft for visual craft here, especially since the visuals were so distinctly . . . peculiar. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain looks like a hybrid version of Don King & Nosferatu. A pair of masked twins recall antique photographs of 1900s Halloween costumes. A Harryhausen skeleton army wreaks havoc on a dayglow carnival funhouse. Stop motion monsters cobbled together out of babydoll parts & preserved animal corpses engage in a tabletop knife fight. A coven of dapper adults & long-limbed reptilian monsters devour piles upon piles of children’s eyeballs. Tim Burton may not be interested in self-reinvention with the imagery he delivers in Peculiar Children; he still delights in clashing a clean cut, sunlit suburbia with haunted house goth monstrosities. However, this film proves he’s still got the goods in terms of the strength & potency of the imagery he can deliver and any other shortcomings there might be in Peculiar Children comfortably rest on those laurels.
The more the scope of Tim Burton’s career becomes clear to me the more apparent it is that he’s almost exclusively a children’s filmmaker. Titles like Ed Wood & Sleepy Hollow are the outliers. Peculiar Children fits right in with Burton’s typical, imaginative creepshow for children aesthetic and I could very easily see a child growing up loving this movie the way I grew up loving Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Kids have an easy time mentally luxuriating in fantasy spaces in a way adults don’t. Returning to Beetlejuice as an adult, the pace feels a lot more rapid than it did to me in the 90s and the movie flies by in a whir, whereas in my childhood it felt like an eternity. Peculiar Children will likely have the same effect on younger viewers. It delivers enough striking imagery & memorable set design that kids could mentally return to & stretch out its individual scenes in a way its two hour runtime couldn’t afford. A better, more deliberately paced version of this story might have stretched out over a franchise or a television series, but limiting it to a single film was a smart choice, one that will have implications on how children interact with it both onscreen & in their imaginations in the years to come. Even in its limited time span and overstuffed plot, Burton still finds the time to work in the doomed wartime narrative of The Devil’s Backbone and the places-as-ghosts concepts of a Toni Morrison novel, all while somehow maintaining the film’s firm footing as children’s media. If any other director had delivered Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it’s likely it’d be held in a much higher regard as an ambitious work of high-concept time travel sci-fi horror for children. However, only Burton could balance all of that overreaching narrative with such specific, effective imagery & maintain its for-kids tone. This film stands as yet another reminder that its director may not be delivering at 100% at this point in his career, but he’s still capable of making some truly great films in-between the duds.
I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.
A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.
Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.
Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.
It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.
Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.
It’s tempting, but not exactly accurate to think of Big Eyes as a return to form for Tim Burton. Although it recalls the vibrant cartoon suburbia of classic titles like Edward Scissorhands, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice and the biopic format of the masterful Ed Wood, it’s not quite like anything Burton’s ever made before. In some ways Big Eyes is a by-the-numbers biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane, elevated only by performances by always-welcome names like Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Christoph Waltz. The most interesting play with form here is the way Waltz’s controlling husband steals the movie from its subject the same way his real-life counterpart stole the limelight & credit for her life’s work, kitschy paintings of depressed children with oversized eyes. For the most part, however, Big Eyes is a straightforward genre exercise, low-key in its scope & ambitions. At this point of Burton’s career, though, a low-key genre exercise is a welcome change from the long string of CGI remakes he’s been releasing since the early 2000s. It’s the most fun, relaxed, and memorable film he’s made in years, even if it bears little resemblance to the cartoon goth aesthetic of his 80s & 90s heyday.
That’s not to say that the film is devoid of Burton’s traditional modes of comical horror; it’s just that the horror takes on a much different form. In this case, Waltz’s sleazebag showman plagiarist (who takes a very Warholian approach to art as commerce) is the threat that plagues the film’s characters. Amy Adams’ Margaret Keane begins the film by leaving one abusive relationship and slipping immediately into another, with Waltz’s crazed pathological liar husband sucking up all of the life & freedom she barely had left over from her first marriage. As she explains it, “I’ve never acted freely. I was a daughter and then a wife and then a mother.” Even as a painter she’s treated as a subordinate, her personal expressions converted into commerce by an abusive, manipulative man. The creepy thing is that he’s so sleazily charming even while he’s ruining her life. Waltz is hilarious, hamming it up as much as he’s allowed, chewing scenery like a hungry dog who’s food’s about to get taken away. His performance is an impressive balance between funny & creepy and before you know it he’s forced Adams’s Keane to take a backseat to her own story the same way the true life plagiarist sidelined his kitsch artist wife. He’s not a headless horseman or a bloodthirsty Martian or a fabricated man with scissors for hands, but he most certainly is a monster.
I spent a lot of Big Eyes’ run time trying to figure out exactly what inspired Burton to tell this story. There are aspects of art as show business, the uselessness of critics, and the redundancy of an artist endlessly repeating themselves that could invite comparisons to Burton’s own work as a filmmaker, but none with too concrete of a conclusion. Maybe he was drawn to telling a story about how it sucked to be a woman in the 50s or he’s just a huge Margaret Keane fan and wanted to tell her story (which is quite interesting). Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome change of pace from Burton’s recent output and his catalog could benefit from more low-key, straightforward works like it. I’m not sure Waltz needs to be set free to ham it up more often, but it works here and the rest of the cast offer a good, calm counterbalance to his eccentricities. For now, it was great to see him steal some spotlight and for Burton’s aesthetic to receive some much-needed sunshine & relaxation.