For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
One imagines Frankenweenie is the movie director Tim Burton has been waiting to make his entire life.
A film of stop-motion animation, it is a feature-length version of a charming but unremarkable live-action short he made for Disney in 1984, about a kid who revives his beloved dead dog via lightning bolts. The House of Mouse found the end result so odd and macabre that it shelved plans to send it to theaters and fired the then-novice director.
Burton landed on his feet, of course, and three decades later, the world is used to his idiosyncratic style — one indelibly stamped on his filmography, which includes Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands.
Ironically, now that Burton is a household name, the new Frankenweeniecomes to us from Disney. Yet if there’s a Hollywood studio moviegoers will associate with it, it’s Universal. While on its surface a story of the bond between a boy and his dog, the film is not-so-secretly a tribute to Universal’s classic monsters of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Its debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is right there in the title — and in an absence of color — but Frankenweenie’s back half also cleverly pays homage to Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon. By doing so all at once, Burton also winks at the studio’s monster-mash efforts like House of Frankenstein, which crammed in as many monsters as would fit in one film. These overstuffed spin-offs were like The Avengers of their day, endlessly replayed on local television stations’ weekend schedules to children all too happy to soak them up.
Burton’s just one of the few who has been able to take all that absorbed junk culture and wring it into a career — witness Mars Attacks!, his Planet of the Apes remake and this summer’s Dark Shadows. Not that the bar was set all that high by those projects, but Frankenweenieis his finest stab yet at marrying nostalgia to his own skewed sensibilities.
In fact, it’s one of his best, period, and part of that could be because working with stop-motion animation allows him complete visual control. His works often put looks above logic, but the script by frequent collaborator John August (CorpseBride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) allows his boss’ imagination to run wild while also retaining heart. Without quite hitting tearjerk mode, it has much. And much more artistry.