Frankenweenie: A bit of a flop for me

All of that praise was due to…why, again?

I kept hearing that Frankenweenie was Tim Burton’s best movie yet, or at least in years, so I was pretty excited to see it with my seven-year-old. She loves The Nightmare Before Christmas so I figured she would love this one, too. And I just knew I would; I love almost everything that man creates.

This time, however, I was mostly disappointed. The film had such a wonderful start, with so many allusions to classical horror films—the creepy classmates were quite excellent!—and tropes either explored or made fun of (mostly made fun of), but it lacked a certain Burton pizzazz.

You want to be surprised when you watch a Tim Burton movie. You want to really be blown away by the dreamscapes and the imagery, the humor coupled with horror. I found myself giving half-hearted “humphs” every now and then, but I didn’t really laugh. Neither did my husband, a fellow Burton aficionado, which makes me think that I’m not alone here.

The characters were mildly interesting enough, but there were so many lead-ins that resulted in nothing that I got frustrated. So many of the kids—particularly the lead character, Victor, and his neighbor, the “little Dutch girl”—had such promising beginnings. And Burton doesn’t usually make his characters come at you under a full onslaught, I know; he has them gradually creep up on you until you feel like you know them like friends, even without much evidence to support why. I just didn’t get that camaraderie with these characters. They felt way too one-note.

And the parents! I’m not into 50s stereotype moms especially, but when you have clueless moms and dads in a Burton movie, they usually wake up at some point with a huge cathartic moment and see the error of their ways. This did happen in the movie, but it just didn’t feel as moving as it did in many of his other films. I can’t put my finger on it, but something magical was missing.

I did read that some critics had similar reactions to mine. Roger Ebert, for example, said the film was good, but not Burton’s best. And while I am inclined to agree with that, I still wouldn’t call it Oscar-worthy—yet it was nominated for an Academy Award just last weekend (it lost to Brave). And there’s one scene in particular when a beloved pet turned into a creature of death is harpooned with a piece of fallen wood and dies that gave my kid nightmares—which probably would make me dislike any movie, honestly.


It’s not what you might expect, but it’s sort of amazing.

My latest way of saving money is to “rent” movies from the library, where they are 100 percent free. I make up a reserve list just like I do with books and simply go get them whenever my movies are in. My husband and I have had two movie date nights now for free. Even the gas can’t be counted, since we go to the rec center, which is attached to the library, all of the time anyway and pick up our movies and books on the way.

Last night we watched the movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, and let me tell you something—it was not what we expected at all. If you watched the trailers, you might have expected a fast, hot, Fast and the Furious type movie. I don’t watch those movies, but I’ll watch anything with Gosling in it. So far he hasn’t let me down and has yet to choose a crap movie to be in, and funnily enough, I trust his judgment.

I walked away from Drive feeling shaken and disturbed, which was likely the director’s goal. It’s not just a movie about a man who is a stunt driver by day, a criminal getaway driver by night. It’s a deeply troubling, mobster film noir with some modern elements—something that you absolutely don’t expect. It’s still quite amazing, as so many critics have already noted. The drive in the movie—who has no name—falls for his neighbor, a mom whose husband is in jail. When the husband comes home and strives for a clean life unsuccessfully, Driver steps in to help out, only to get entangled into a huge violent mess with the mob.

He certainly holds his own, though, and the brooding mood of the film—coupled with the '80s songs, wardrobe, and even scenery—creates this tense, engaging movie that really creeps up on you. When it becomes violent, there is no turning back—it’s like Tarantio meets Eastwood, before the chair. Seriously, if Mystic River and Pulp Fiction had a baby, it would be Drive.

My husband wasn’t very impressed with the movie—probably because he was really expecting a fast car chasing action flick—but I am still left disturbed and thinking about it today. I really liked the movie, but it still has me processing, thinking, something that most movies just don’t do—and for that I want to thank the director even more. The cast was fantastic, the story believable and unsettling; it really was a fantastic noir movie, which is saying a lot, considering it’s not my favorite genre.

Dark Shadows Review

Prepare for some good old-fashioned Tim Burton fun!

On Wednesday, even though I was sick with pretty gross allergies, my husband and I took my mom up on her offer for a sleepover with our daughter and we went to see a movie by one of our absolute favorite directors, Tim Burton. Dark Shadows was pretty much everything you would expect it to be—a campy, Burton-y funny fest with plenty of weirdness and Johnny Depp. And it was really fun to see, especially if you like that kind of theme.

That doesn’t mean the movie wasn’t without its problems, of course (spoilers ahead). I’ve never watched the Dark Shadows soap opera—though I now know that my grandmother did, which makes me want to see it—so I’m not sure how it compares; but it did feel really disjointed, as if they were combining a bunch of episodes of the soap opera together to make a movie. Some things just never felt fully developed—such as Barnabas ‘s love for a main character, or the motive behind many of the characters’ actions. I still don’t really “get” Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, though I did like her. And what is it with Burton killing off Bonham Carter in every movie she is in? Whether her death was canon or not in the television show, I do not know, but it does seem like he likes to kill his partner off over and over again. I’m really not sure what to read into that, if anything—perhaps it’s all in good fun for the two of them.

The acting was lots of fun to watch; the entire cast was wonderful. I love Chloe Moretz (who went from playing the vampire in Let Me In to a surprise (and lovely) werewolf in this film) and Jackie Earle Haley (whom I think should have many more starring roles, especially in scary movies) just as much as the big A-list heading the film, and Eva Green was pretty spectacular—though she always is, in my experience.  I would like the makers of Twilight—and any other paranormal fictional film piece makers—to take note of how both the vampire and the werewolf were portrayed (and/or CGI’d) in this movie; that’s how it should be, folks. None of this glittery vamp and cheap wolfiness!

It’s not scary at all, so don’t go in expecting anything like Sleepy Hollow (I do miss Burton’s scariness sometimes). But it’s definitely as visually striking and entertaining as, say, Beetlejuice, though not quite as funny. If you’re a Burton fan I would say you should definitely check it out.

"The Legend of 1900"

A film that I wish were better.


My Chinese student turned me on to the weird—and ultimately discombobulated—movie made by Italian-in-American-made film, The Legend of 1900.

Perhaps turned me on to the film isn’t the right phrase; rather, I watched this film with the hope that it would eventually find its solid footing and pick one thing that it wanted to be. As it was, it was one part romantic nostalgia of an unusual life, one part campy romp, and one part musical homage. All parts together, it was disjointed, and didn’t add to all it could have had it had an editor with a stronger hand.

The movie is part flashback told by Max, the best friend of the lead character, a man named 1900. Max wants to sell his trumpet—an instrument that once gave him pleasure, but now only gives him pain. At the shop, the dealer plays an old, patched-together record that Max said was made by his friend 1900 and later destroyed. In the form of a story within a story, we learn that strange story of 1900.

1900 was born onboard a ship that passed between Europe and the United States several times a year. His parents left him onboard and departed, leaving him to be raised by one of the ship’s workers. 1900 never departs the ship for fear of being taken to an orphanage, thereby developing a fear of land that never subsides.

In this way, the film sets up an interesting premise—that 1900 is some otherworldly creature because he doesn’t have a city or a nation, but only a ship. Because of this unique status, 1900 can make up similarly otherworldly jazz music, incomparable to anything on any continent.

This really unusual and intriguing premise is almost entirely squandered, however. 1900 is a talented piano player—he just sits down at the piano and can amazingly play—but his talent seems no different than a prodigiously-talented piano player born and bred on dry land. His prodigy is interesting, sure, but we never get to see the link between 1900’s sea life and his unusual talent. We understand 1900’s otherness, to be sure, but we don’t even get a clue to how this otherness makes him special.

Strange scenes of Max and 1900’s sadness and 1900’s wondrous talent oddly coupled with a scene of a manically rolling piano and a falling chandelier make you wonder the hell you’re watching. Most of all, it makes you wonder why it can’t all be better.


Honor In Noir

"You're Supposed To Do Something About It"

In “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade calls the cops on the woman he loves out of an abstract sense of obligation to a man he didn't even like in the first place. When she asks him why, he tells her she wouldn't understand, but that “when someone kills your partner, you're supposed to do something about it.”

He doesn't use the word, but what he's talking about is an honor code, an inflexible and sometimes even fatal set of rules that must be followed regardless of the circumstances for no very clear reason other than a sense that it's expected.


The question is, expected by whom? In modern-day societies with honor codes (such as highland Albania with it's “Kanun of Lek”), the code is enforced by the expectations of the community. As an Albanian highlander, you might not have liked your cousin, you might not even have known him, but according to the rules of the “Kanun of Lek,” you must avenge his death. If you fail to do so, the other villagers will see you as a man of no consequence, a non-entity, easy prey.


The world of noir, though, is amoral. Moral men like Sam Spade are always in a minority of one. There is no village, and no one who will judge that you have “lost your honor” if you don't avenge your partner. No one will even care. Sam Spade destroys his own chance at love and happiness for fear of a judgment that doesn't exist in the first place. That's the tragedy of honor in noir.



The Blue Dahlia

Chandler's Less-Than-Masterpiece

“The Blue Dahlia” is one of only two film noir movies I've had the opportunity to see on the big screen (the other one being “The Maltese Falcon”). It was written by the great noir detective writer Raymond Chandler, despite which it's not one of the most important noirs. Chandler ran into a severe case of writer's block halfway through, and would only agree to complete the script if the director would give him a case of scotch whisky and the green light to drink it all while he was writing.

The scotch doesn't seem to have impaired the script any, but it didn't exactly make it sparkle either. “The Blue Dahlia” isn't a bad example of the genre by any means, but it isn't a stellar example either. It's just a middle-of-the-road noir murder story about a guy who's accused of murdering his wife, but who actually didn't. The plot is as convoluted as you would expect from Raymond Chandler, but the ending doesn't quite make logical sense because Chandler sets you up to think that the murder was committed by the main character's shell-shocked best friend, but then he turns out to be innocent too.


The reason for this is that the Army didn't want to deal with the reality of damaged soldiers with PTSD coming home and committing crimes, so they asked for the script to be changed at the last minute. Chandler pulled it off, but the ending still feels a little bit arbitrary.




Artsy Spy Noir

“Europa” is an example of a genre of noir that is not often considered in the same breath with the detective stories and gangster stories that are seen as defining the genre- spy noir. Some of the classic 40s noir movies are examples of spy noir, including “This Gun For Hire,” but that one also features gangsters and hit men. Spy noir as such is usually set in Europe, often during the Cold War, and it features the atmosphere and the fatalism of film noir in a context of spy versus spy plots and counterplots.

“Europa” uses the feel and atmosphere of this noir subgenre in an artsy, avant garde and somewhat ironic way. The story is set in occupied Germany just after World War II, and features a plot involving “Werwolf” partisans- guerrillas loyal to the recently-defeated Nazi regime. If you like your noir straighforward an unironic, this might strike you as pretentious. If you can handle a little artsy melodrama mixed in with your noir, you'll probably find it interesting.


As for me, I'm a little mixed on this one. I remember enjoying it when I first saw it, but that was before I got really seriously into noir as a genre. Now I'm inclined to say that noir should be done seriously if at all, and that artsy pseudo-noir is really irritating. But without seeing it again, I'm not sure which way I would come down on this particular example of the type.



Devil In a Blue Dress

Easy Rawlins PI Mystery

One of the most common modern tropes in detective fiction is to take the otherwise-overdone archetype/stereotype of the hard-boiled private eye, and put your own little twist on it. So your protagonist is a hard-boiled private eye, but also (pick one): a woman, a black man, a Japanese-American hit man, a vampire, a space alien, a robot, a medieval monk, etc etc.

Strangely enough for so such an obvious device, this can sometimes allow the writer to show us some really big and powerful things, just by tweaking the perspective a little bit. Walter Mosely's “Easy Rawlins” mysteries are my favorite example. I love the old Raymond Chandler “Philip Marlowe” hard-boiled detective stories, the basis for “The Big Sleep” and other classic noir films. Easy Rawlins is a PI (unlicensed) in the same city as Marlowe and at close to the same time (the Marlowe stories start in the 30s, the Rawlins stories in the 40s) but Easy Rawlins is a black man, and that fact alone makes a huge, huge difference.


The Marlowe stories usually had some level of political commentary (along with some gratuitous homophobia and racism) but the Rawlins stories are largely about the issues of race and class in American history, told through the medium of crime fiction so compelling and readable that it's never taken me more than about two days to read any book in the series. Rawlins, in a way, is a take-off on the Marlowe archetype- but the Rawlins stories are actually better. Not exactly because they're more political, and certainly not because they're “politically correct.” These things are irrelevant to whether a particular story is told well or poorly. The Marlowe books are less political, but they are also classics in their own right. The Rawlins stories are superior because the author uses his political perspective to get to some huge and very moving truths, and that makes them more powerful as stories.


I haven't said anything about this movie yet, but I'll tell you this- the movie of “Devil In A Blue Dress” is what got me into the books. I've already seen it about ten times, and I'll probably see it ten more. How's that for a review?




"Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."


"Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."


That's the last line of “Detour,” a classic B-grade noir. It's also an expression of one of the defining characteristics of film noir, which is a pessimistic fatalism. Many noir movies feature some seemingly miniscule decision or act which sets in motion an inescapable chain of events and dooms the hero.

“DOA” is one of the best examples- the main character is a notary public, and he only finds out the reason for what happened to him at the very end, after it's already too late. All he had done was to notarize a document, an action taking only a few seconds. He didn't even remember doing it. Unfortunately for him, the document could have been used to expose a company smuggling radioactive materials, so he was marked for death.


Not every film noir has this characteristic, but many of them do. The sense of a dark and malignant fate, unstoppable and inescapable, gives noir a lot of its fascination. The noir hero is not heroic because he overcomes seemingly impossible odds, but because the odds really are impossible and cannot be overcome. We sympathize and identify with his doomed struggle to escape, but all along we know he won't.


Fate, in film noir, is an almost numinous power- a “mysterious force”- and this gives film noir a feeling almost similar to that of a horror movie. In fact, there is a certain amount of overlap between the two genres, and 1942s “Cat People” is sometimes referenced as both a horror film and a classic noir.



German Expressionism

And Its Influence On Noir

The mood and visual style of noir owe a lot to German expressionism, an avant-garde style of cinema from the silent film era of the 1920s. German expressionism was a style that emphasized the internal psychological reality of the characters rather than the objective factual reality of what was being portrayed. This manifested in many different ways, including the use of exaggerated, spooky shadows in such classic silent-era horror movies as “Nosferatu” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

When the Nazis took power in Germany in the 1930s, many German film-makers fled the country, as did many of the cameramen who worked with them. They settled in Hollywood, where their experience with German expressionism influenced the work they did on American movies, especially adaptations of hardboiled detective and gangster stories. Even when they weren't directly involved in a particular movie, they still had an artistic influence on those who were.


The “dark shadows” style of film noir owes a lot to this influence, as well as to the fact that a lot of the B-grade noirs were shot without adequate lighting due to budget constraints. A combination of artsy German cinematic techniques on the high end with “making the best of a bad situation” on the low end resulted in the defining style of American crime movies. When French film critics were finally able to view American movies again after the war, the thing that struck them most forcibly was the presence of heavy shadows, sometimes rendering a scene almost completely black- thus, “film noir.” Combined with a French tradition of short crime fiction known as “serie noir” for its dark subject matter, and the concept of the American film noir was born.


You can actually see a clear distinction between the noirs of the 40s, when the term had not yet been invented and directors were not conscious of working within a specific style, and the noirs of the 50s when they were self-consciously “doing film noir.” The noir films of this later period are much more self-conscious about it, layering on the shadows for an exaggerated effect. “The Maltese Falcon” is widely considered the first of the classic noir movies, and “Touch of Evil” the last. If you watch them both back to back, the difference is striking.