The Burton/Depp Collaborations – The 1990s

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are a cinematic pair that will probably be working together, till both of them are in their old age. The duo have made seven pictures together of varying success. We’ll be looking at these films by decade and see of their collaborations are gaining value or zero-ing out.


Edward Scissorhands (1990)
It was quite a surprise to see teen heartthrob and star of 21 Jump Street working in a film by the director of Batman. Even though I was only eight at the time, I remember thinking it was weird that the Johnny Depp guy would be in this movie. I was also deeply obsessed with Burton at the time because of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and aforementioned Batman. Scissorhands didn’t appeal to me at that age though, its a deeper film, meant for an older audience. Yes, it has elements of a fairy tale, but its satiric take on Southern California suburbia, its bittersweet love story, and its affection for the wonderful Vincent Price is sort of lost of a 3rd grader. This is the film Depp broke out with, and I feel he’s always felt a strong closeness to Burton because of it. Deep delivers a wonderfully muted performance, I can’t say I’ve seen him deliver anything like this since. While Jack Sparrow has flowery dialogue and free reign to go over the top. That’s a style of acting that can be a sort of cakewalk. Edward doesn’t get to speak much, but has those wonderful props on his hands, that give a truly unique form of expression. Burton is also at the top of his game, delivering the gothic landscapes as well as a neon suburbia. I hope that with Burton’s upcoming Frankenweenie feature film we can see some more of this.

Ed Wood (1994)
A lot of Burton/Depp fans have missed this one, and I personally think it is the best film Burton has ever made. There are references to his deep love of classic horror films and a darkly wicked sense of humor. The performances here are spectacular as well. Depp, who is such an adept chameleon, takes on the wackiness of Ed Wood completely. In addition, Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi is one of the best pieces of acting there has ever been in a Burton picture. Lugosi comes across as sympathetic, yet constantly acerbic and unlikable. It’s the only film Burton has done which was based on real events, and makes me curious to see what other visual flair he could add to another famous figure. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a Burton directed film about Vincent Price? Or Edgar Allen Poe? Bill Murray also has a perfect performance as Wood’s homosexual producer and has one of the best scenes in the film during a mandatory baptism by financial backers from a church. Burton and Depp have come close only once to the level of perfection this film achieved.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Burton and Depp finished out the decade with the first of many adaptations. I am not a fan of the majority of Burton’s adapted works, the scripts are never written by him and bear a lot of the clich├ęd story beats of typical Hollywood work. Here we have Ichabod Crane turned from a schoolteacher to a pre-forensics crime investigator. That character tweak has always come off as insulting to me. The studio believed Crane had to be “sexier” and so he had to be a detective. It would have been simple to have Crane’s intellectual curiosity spurring him on to investigate the goings on in Sleepy Hollow. Depp felt very blank in this film as well, I never felt a true sense of personality in him. Yes, there are some wonderful visuals, but it is at about this point things begin to feel stale in Burton’s aesthetic. He draws on the classic Corman horror flicks of his youth but seems to recycle a lot of visuals from Nightmare Before Christmas. This staleness would continue into the next decade.

Next: The Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Naked


Naked (1993, dir. Mike Leigh)

Starring David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Gregg Crutwell, Claire Skinner
When viewing a Mike Leigh film you typically expect to see a slice of life portrayal of contemporary England. The focus will on the ins and outs of daily life for working class people. However, with this picture, Leigh creates an abrasive, violent, surreal universe which does adhere to the tenets of his standard films: there are no big illuminating answers or moments.
We first see Johnny (Thewlis), the film’s protagonist, in the middle of raping a woman in an alleyway. Hardly a way to endear us the character we’ll be following through the rest of the movie. The woman runs away saying she’s going to get brothers and they will beat Johnny to death. Johnny runs home, grabs a few things, steals a car and heads to London where he imposes himself on old flame Sophie (Sharp). Johnny gets involved with Sophie’s flatmate (Cartlidge), leaves in a huff and encounters a series of strange characters living and working in London. Johnny is paralleled by Jeremy (Crutwell) an utter misogynist and sociopath that gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money.
Director Leigh seems to be using Naked as sandbox in which to play with the audience’s expectations of their characters and the flow of plot in film. There is a palpable trajectory to the film for its first 30 minutes, and then suddenly it veers off into an episodic series of encounters between Johnny and other random characters. The introduction of Jeremy is intentionally confusing and appears to have no bearing on the overall plot of the film. Jeremy’s abusive exploits don’t feature any characters from Johnny’s portion of the film and seem as if they were cut in from another film. When the two plots cross into each other in the last 40 minutes of the film there is no explosive conflict or release of tension.
Naked could easily be seen as an extremely misogynistic film, but that would be selling short. Yes, women are brutalized numerous times throughout the film, Jeremy himself rapes about three women. However, I think Leigh is testing us to see what we will accept from characters in a film. What is the line they cross that makes them intolerable for us? In addition, every single characters is away from home: Johnny is on the run, Sophie is sub-leasing, her friend Sandra (Skinner) is off traveling through Zimbabwe. The moment the film finds its resolution is when all the characters have assembled in Sandra’s flat after she has returned home. It’s in this moment the genre of the film becomes rapid fire and even more absurd. There are elements of farce, romance, drama, and in the end it all falls apart. Johnny ends up even more broken than he had been at the start and where is going is now unknown and inevitably even further into the gutter.

Wild Card Tuesday – Reality Bites


Reality Bites (1994, dir. Ben Stiller)

Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garafalo, Steve Zhan, Swoosie Kurtz, John Mahoney
Have you ever gone back and read some piece of poetry or short story you wrote as an adolescent or early 20-something and cringed at how naive and oblivious its sentiments and ideas were? A similar feeling is felt when watching Ben Stiller’s directorial debut 16 years past its time. Intended to be a thesis statement of post-grad Generation X, Reality Bites feels like the standard love triangle movie with a 90s-grunge facade.
Our protagonist is Lelaina, a wannabe documentarian and resident of Austin, TX who wants to produce work of substance about real life issues. She employed by an inane morning show who cannot stand her and lives a typical pseudo-slacker existence with her roommate (Garafalo) and their two guy friends (Hawke and Zahn). Into Lelaina’s life steps Michael (Stiller), an upper class yuppie and executive for a music television channel “like MTV but edgier”. Hawke’s Troy becomes jealous of Michael’s presence and thus the love triangle centered around poor Lelaina.
The deck is unfairly stacked in Troy’s favor from the get go as the film plays into every romantic stereotype in the book. Troy is the philosophy reading, lead singer in a grunge band, pretentious artsy guy who has typical abandonment issues (dad left when he was young and Troy had been rebellious ever since as a result). Michael is a materialistic geek who “just doesn’t get” the “real” disaffected Gen X youth. I found myself rolling my eyes an unusual number of times because of how broad these characters are played. Not for a second did I believe Lelaina would end up with anyone BUT Troy. The film telegraphs this from the characters’ first scene together.
At the time, this film may have felt surprisingly fresh but now it feels like an attempt to cram everything that defined the 90s slacker type into an hour and half. That doesn’t leave much room for honest character development. The two poignant moments in the film (Garafalo’s AIDs scare and Zahn coming out to his mother) last all of a few seconds and then its back to the completely uninteresting trails and tribulations of Lelaina. The characters seem to be oblivious to how terrible they are at their lives: for a documentary filmmaker Lelaina doesn’t know how to hold a camera that isn’t askew and Troy is complete and utter asshat. At the end, the love story here feels like it has as much depth as the Twilight films.

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Men With Guns


Men With Guns (1997)

Starring Federico Luppi
Throughout history it is apparent that the people who get to make the rules are the ones with the bigger weapons. The entire continents of Africa, South and North America were conquered simply because Western civilization developed guns and gunpowder before the aboriginal peoples of the New World. And even now, with an annual budget of $708 billion for defense, the United States rules because it has the “guns”. Its this situation and state of humanity that director John Sayles starts out from in this film. Instead of sticking to the grittiness of reality, Sayles opts for a more magic realist mode which is appropriate for the picture’s setting in an unnamed Central American country.
Doctor Humberto Fuentes is an aging man, physician to members of his country’s military echelons and father to adult children who seem to grate on his last nerve. Dr. Fuentes holds a group of med students he mentored up as his true children, proud that they helped him form a program to administer medicine to the native people living in the jungles and hills of his country. This dream is shattered when he witnesses one doctor in the city, working as a fence for illegal goods. He questions the man who tells him to visit another student doctor in a rural village to understand why it has come to this. Dr. Fuentes embarks on journey that takes him from remote outpost to remote outpost and introduces him to a cast of characters who represent ideas and icons much larger than themselves.
The film is a spiritual successor to many great myths, the Wizard of Oz, and the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The people that make up Fuentes traveling band by the end of the film are all slightly larger than life. As the term “magic realism” implies they exhibit that larger nature yet are still individual characters with very distinctive personalities. One of the most interesting characters is Padre Portillo, a priest who has a death warrant from the military on his head for the suspicion of collaborating with rebel guerrillas. Portillo refers to himself a “a ghost”, believing that the moment he had to abandon the village where he was stationed, and in effect abandon the Church, he was no longer alive or dead.
Much like Lone Star and Matewan, Men With Guns allows John Sayles to examine the concept of hierarchies. In all these films, the authority only retains their power through harsh, absurd violence. The victims of this violence often have no understanding of the method behind, and they frankly don’t care. All they know is that a gun barrel is pointed at them and they simply don’t want to die. Sayles is asking us if we follow the strictures of society because we truly believe in them or because we fear the guns. Dr. Fuentes is representative of the upper class, he practices philanthropy and simply assumes his good works filter down to the people at the bottom of the social ladder. Instead, his journey reveals to him that the very power structure he has had unblinking faith in burns villages down to “protect” the very people who live in them.
Next: Casa de los babys

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Four

1993 – 2006


Short Cuts (1993)
Starring Andie McDowell, Bruce Davidson, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry

Combining one of my favorite directors (Altman) and one of my favorite writers (Raymond Carver) has got to result in a film I love, right? Right! Short Cuts is the sort of fragmented, mish mash and series of sour notes I love Altman for. Influenced by the jazz music of his hometown Kansas City, the director takes a cleaver to Carver’s best short stories and tells them in interwoven pieces. Moments are found where a minor character in one story can be the major character in another. Altman is at home with Carver’s ambiguity and sudden endings as well. There is a little resolution here and it reminds me of some of Altman’s best naturalist films in the 1970s. Life simply just is in the end, without rhyme or reason. Our paths cross with others, some times that causes an event to occur and some times it doesn’t matter one bit that we met them. Certain moments could be played for cheap sentimentality, but the snark of Altman refuses to let that happen.


Gosford Park (2001)

Starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Richard E. Grant
Robert Altman never met a genre he couldn’t twist into knots. Here he takes on the British murder mystery and turns it into an upstairs/downstairs look at social class, which becomes less and less about the murder and more about the divides between us. Even the two detectives who respond the country manor when a body shows up are mirroring the social gap. Thompson (Fry) is quite at home with the gentlemen of the house, while Dexter is down to the task at hand of finding clues and uncovering the murderer. One of the most impressive facts about Gosford Park is that Altman was 76 when it was filmed, and not showing the sense that his was flagging in his commitment to his craft at all.


A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Starring Woody Harrelson, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
This was to be the final entry into Altman’s career. Garrison Keillor and the director collaborated in developing a film based on Keillor’s popular NPR variety show. The film features the real life performers on the weekly radio series alongside actors portraying fictional members of the troupe. On the night of the performance when the film takes place, a woman arrives claiming to be the Angel of Death. Her presence is muted for most of the film but Altman makes sure we know she is there until she plays her role at the end of the picture. This is assuredly not his best picture, but it is still a decent film from a master filmmaker. During filming, Altman would request help from P.T. Anderson as the elder man was suffering from some health problems. It is more than a little appropriate that Anderson would take part; his films Boogie Nights and Magnolia are the spiritual children of Altman’s huge ensemble pictures.
He never made a film he didn’t want to make. There were times when studios propositioned him with a concept or a script, but if he agreed it was going to be on his terms and no one else’s. Just like fellow auteur Stanley Kubrick, Altman never received an Academy Award for directing. Though he did receive a lifetime achievement award months before he passed away. He was intensely close to his family, especially his children. His son Mike was involved in writing music for MASH at the age of 14 and worked alongside his dad for decades. There is a little chance we will see another director as singularly bullheaded as Robert Altman AND able to get his pictures made on the studio’s money. And we will be the poorer for it.
Four Altman Films You Have To See!
1) 3 Women
2) The Long Goodbye
3) Secret Honor
4) Short Cuts

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Three

1980s, 1990 – 1992


Popeye (1980)

Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley
This film is a perfect example of what happened when Altman was tapped to do a studio project. At the end of the day, Altman got the movie he wanted and the studio lost. It was his bullheadedness that made such a thing possible. The studio wanted a film based on the Popeye cartoons, with Popeye wolfing down spinach mixed with Hollywood style musicals. Altman said no and based the film on the original Popeye comic strip where the character was born. The original Popeye had no taste for spinach and the series of populated with all sorts of odd characters. Altman agreed to make it musical but hired singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, famous for his incredibly quirky music and infamous for his alcoholism. Altman also had a crew build the city of Sweethaven over the course of seven months and both cast and crew actually lived in the set where the film was made. Popeye was met with a terrible reception; most critics and most audiences hated it. Even though I am a big Altman fan, I understand why they hated it. Altman doesn’t like following traditionally narratives and character arcs and if that’s what you expect when you go to see a film it can be frustrating. Needless to say, Altman never really did a studio developed picture like this again.


Secret Honor (1984)

Starring Phillip Baker Hall
In a major depature, Altman sold his studio, Lion’s Gate and became a film professor at the University of Michigan. It was only a short tenure, but while he was there he and his class filmed what is basically a one-man play about Richard Nixon. The setting of the film is contemporary (1980s) with Nixon in his home office late a night recording his memoirs. Playing into stories of his paranoia, he has a display of closed circuit monitors in front of him, helping keep an eye on his home. The film consists of Nixon rambling on about events in his presidency, his contempt of JFK; Kissinger; and Eisenhower, and about the vast conspiracy at work against him. As Nixon drinks and rambles, his monologues trail off into the mutterings of a mad man. This madness is the focal point of the film, with the cinematography and score accentuating it. While not remembered as a major achievement in Altman’s career, it is one of the most unique of his films.


Vincent & Theo (1990)

Starring Tim Roth, Paul Rhys
Altman came out of a lull in the 1980s swinging. The 1990s became his renaissance which would lead to finally get major recognition from his peers in the 2000s. It began here with a biopic of the painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Theo was an art dealer who encouraged Vincent’s madness somewhat because he saw the great work it produced. The film focuses mostly on Theo and his guilt at living a life of such wealth and prominence in the community while his brother falls further into dementia. Their family has a history of mental illness and as the brother’s parallel lives continue, Theo begins to show signs himself. There are few films that capture painting better than this one. The modernist score highlights the dissonance in Vincent’s mind as he’s effected by medicines and failed relationships. The final sequences of the film almost raise into the horror category.


The Player (1992)

Starring Tim Robbins, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett
Altman returned to prominence with this film which skewers the self-involved and self-interested motivation of Hollywood executives. Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin, follows producer Griffin Mill (Robbins) finds his job deciding which scripts get made into films threatened when a young hot shot 20th Century Fox exec (Gallagher) shows up. At the same time, Mill is receiving threatening postcards and learns they are from a screenwriter whose work he has rejected. Mill and the screenwriter meet up, a scuffle ensues, and Mill accidentally kills the man. From there things go downhill, with starstruck detectives visiting the lot and Mill’s girlfriend becoming increasingly suspicious about what he’s been up to. The Player is definitely a dark comedy and afforded Altman the opportunity to poke fun at a lot of the absurdity he encountered in the studio world. The opening sequence is a 8 minute, one take shot of the camera following one pair of execs then switching to another as they discuss scripts, all of which are real and include a sequel to Casablanca. The film also includes over 60 cameos of actors and actresses as themselves.
Next: 1993 – 2006

Film 2010 #28 – King of New York


King of New York (1990, dir. Abel Ferrara)

Starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi
When I was a child, I noticed a bleak tone in many films and the music of the era. I think of Nirvana and other grunge artists and films like Terminator 2. It felt like there was a darkness over all these things. Now, many years older I look back and realize that it was in part a response to the downturn of the self-indulgent 70s and greedy 80s. This is why Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is such a excellent culmination of this sense of burning out after decades of success.
The story opens with the release of Frank White (Walken), a crime boss who has finished serving his term in prison (We’re told he’s been gone for years, but never given an exact number). Frank’s lieutenants on the outside begin a systematic execution of rival bosses as a signal that Frank has returned. Frank’s new outlook on life has him redirecting his criminal enterprise into helping keep a hospital for low income families open, an admirable goal indeed. However, Roy Bishop (Argo), the cop who took him down originally is keeping an eye on Frank. Both men, Frank and Roy, have metaphorical children, young soldiers who were raised in their service and owe everything to their “fathers”. And both sets of children are the victims of their fathers’ legacies in the end.
Walken plays things in his trademark bizarre way. Frank never approaches anything remotely human, he is forever emotionally distanced from everyone around him. His devotion to saving the failing hospital is admirable but he has no strong reaction when he own men are gunned down around him. On the flip-side, Roy is shattered when his “boys” are gunned down. It’s regret that separates these two men, Frank stance summed up nicely in the line, “I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.” Frank is able to justify his actions because he is so distanced from them, he assuages any guilt by taking up a cause in the community like the local hospital.
The film is much more about style than substance though. The soundtrack and visuals are all meticulously crafted to generate a very specific tone. The picture never feels like it could take place in reality until the final sequence. For the majority of the pic, Frank and his crew’s actions are incredibly over the top, specifically a shoot out in Chinatown where every single person on the street seems to have access to an automatic assault rifle. What this picture does best is create palpable tone, from the opening frames you have no doubt about the type of world you are entering and get a feeling for the bleak, hopeless finale its heading toward.

Film 2010 #24 – The Late Shift


The Late Shift (1996, dir. Betty Thomas)
Starring Kathy Bates, John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams, Rich Little

While the Leno/Conan scuffle has been making headlines for the last month, it serves only as a reminder of NBC’s consistent inability to manage its late night talent. The well-known fight between Leno and Letterman for The Tonight Show inspired similar headlines, a book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, and an HBO film based on the book. The film is basically in exercise in the failure to have your cake and eat it too.
The problem stemmed from NBC’s selfish business sense to not let go of Jay Leno, a very popular young comic at the time. He has huge popularity as the guest host of The Tonight Show and as a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman. In their infinite wisdom and through the coercion of Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick (more on her in a minute), NBC signed a behind closed doors deal to give Leno The Tonight Show. They just happened to never tell Johnny Carson or Letterman that until it was too late. When the news is finally announced, Letterman is heartbroken but keeps his eye singularly on somehow getting his dream job back. Months go by and his management gets him out of his contract and into a new spot at CBS and the rest is history.
While the film is in theory about Leno and Letterman I would argue is is just as much about Helen Kushnick (Bates) as well. While the idea of pushing Letterman out of spot he truly earned is pretty low, the tenacity of Kushnick in an industry where the majority of power players are men is admirable. For a woman who had just managed comedians for most of her career to come in and bully the NBC executives into giving her client the number one property in late night television is an amazing accomplishment. She was given executive producer-ship and her downfall came in threatening guests that if they appeared on any other talk shows they would be banned from hers.
Early on there is a scene where Helen is telling off someone over the phone whom is unwilling to attend an AIDS benefit she is organizing. Her tongue lashing on the man (Kushnick was famous for her profane mouth) is brutal, and later in the film it is mentioned that her son died from an AIDs-infected blood transfusion. This bit of backstory reveals how intensely Helen’s convictions informed her personality. Helen is eventually forced out by the NBC execs and Leno folds very easily when he realizes his place as host would be taken if he defends her.
The film is no directorial masterpiece. Betty Thomas is a Second City alum with some tv acting and directing experience who went on to direct theatrical films such as Dr. Doolite, 28 Days, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and arguably her best work The Brady Bunch Movie. The cinematography is very much of the made-for-tv quality but the film makes for an interesting historical artifact and would probably spark an interest in reading Carter’s book.