Decades Blogathon – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

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1985

It’s day six of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the tremendous Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Louis at The Cinematic Frontier. Louis’ thoughts and musings on the world of film make for fun and informative reading so why not do yourself a favour and head over there after checking out his review!

Thirty years ago, a film was released by Warner Bros. that would become an important milestone in the careers of three individuals.

For Paul Reubens, it would mark the big screen debut of his character Pee-Wee Herman; for Tim Burton, it would mark his feature film directing debut; while for Danny Elfman, it would mark the creation of his first Hollywood film score.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure Poster

To say that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is an important film is an understatement (to say that it’s hilarious would also be an understatement). I first saw it on the big screen in January 2003 at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. I saw it a second time later that Fall as part of a Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, and I saw it a third time on the big screen at a midnight screening at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema five years ago.

It was very enjoyable every time I saw it, and it just seemed to get funnier with every viewing. This 30th anniversary review of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is my entry in the Decades Blogathon hosted by Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure follows the child-like Pee-Wee Herman as he sets off on a road trip across America to find his special bike after he discovers that it was stolen. Burton assembled a terrific cast that includes Reubens (as Pee-Wee Herman), Elizabeth Daily (as Dottie), Mark Holton (as Francis), Diane Salinger (as Simone), Judd Omen (as Mickey), Alice Nunn (as Large Marge), Jon Harris (as Andy), Jan Hooks (as Tour Guide Tina), Carmen Filpi (as Hobo Jack), Jason Hervey (as Kevin), Morgan Fairchild (as Movie Dottie), James Brolin (as Movie P.W.) and Phil Hartman (as Reporter).

Reubens is a hoot as Pee-Wee, bringing zaniness and child-like innocence to the role. Daily is also wonderful as Dottie, the bike store employee with a huge crush on Pee-Wee. Holton is very entertaining as the villainous (and giant spoiled brat) Francis, bringing just enough zaniness and camp without going too over-the-top.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

Burton was a perfect choice to direct this film as he brings order to the beautiful chaos of the world of Pee-Wee Herman (I loved his use of stop-motion animation in the more surreal moments of the film). The screenplay by Reubens, Hartman, and Michael Varhol is just funny throughout the entire film, filled with hilarious dialogue and visual gags (it’s still hard to believe that it was inspired by Vittorio DeSica’s 1948 Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves).

The production design by David L. Snyder is incredible, bringing such an odd world to life (Pee-Wee’s house is still my favorite, especially with all those cool gadgets, including the breakfast machine, and over-sized utensils). Victor J. Kemper’s cinematography is first-rate, as is Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ costume designs, while Elfman delivers an outstanding score with creative use of percussion and a memorable theme for Pee-Wee.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a highly enjoyable comedy that still holds up after 30 years. Its importance cannot be understated, and its success led to greater things for the careers of Burton, Reubens, and Elfman. If you haven’t already seen this comedy classic, then do so as soon as possible!

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In Retrospect – Batman (1989)

It’s difficult to overestimate just what a seismic impact Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Dark Knight’s on-screen persona had on the movie landscape.

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton's first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

While Steven Spielberg had given birth to the Hollywood blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and George Lucas had taken it into the stratosphere in Star Wars (1977), ‘event’ cinema reached a whole new level with the arrival of Batman in 1989.

I was one of the many millions seduced by the carefully orchestrated marketing hype that became known as ‘Batmania’ and queued as a young lad with barely contained excitement on the opening day… before watching it again the following day.

At the time I recall thinking it was “ace”. However, 25 years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss.

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton's Batman

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton’s Batman

Taking its lead from Alan Moore and Brian Boland’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, the film follows the early days of Batman’s war against crime in Gotham City, an urban cesspool riven by police corruption, terrified citizens, desperate politicians and mob rule.

An intervention by the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) at a chemical plant inadvertently leads to the ‘death’ of senior mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) and the ‘birth’ of the cackling, psychopathic Joker and soon Gotham turns into the playground in which these two opposing sides of a scarred coin go mano-a-mano. Dragged into the fray is star photo-journalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who’s lured to Gotham by the fantastical news of a “winged freak” terrorising the city’s underground.

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton's Batman

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton’s Batman

The first thing that strikes you is Anton Furst’s astonishing vision of Gotham City; a mish-mash of conflicting architectural styles that’s brought to life so vividly it practically dwarfs everything else.

With such eye-opening visuals to contend with, Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman needed to bring his A-game for Batman‘s score and did just that. Elfman threw everything and the kitchen sink in, from the dark and sinister to screwball via operatic organs and the pulse-quickening march which memorably opens the movie.

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

However, a great score and production design do not a great film make. Despite several quotable lines – “Think about the future”; “I think I’ve got a live one here!”; “This town needs an enema!”; “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s screenplay is all over the place (Burton subsequently admitted that chunks of the script were improvised on the hoof).

Burton allows scenes to go on too long, usually to indulge Nicholson, while others are clunky or completely unnecessary, most notably the sequence in Gotham City Museum wherein the Joker and his henchmen bespoil a series of valuable artworks.

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Elfman’s score is so memorable that the inclusion of Prince’s soundtrack feels jarring next to it. The decision to draft in Prince – one of the most popular musicians on the planet at the time – was savvy thinking on the part of the money men at Warner Bros, but the film has an awkward time crowbarring the tunes into the narrative.

Burton works hard to create a dark and brooding tone akin to a 1940s-era noir (everyone wears hats!), but counterbalances it with a series of cartoonish moments (Napier’s bleached white hand emerging from the chemical waste; Wayne caught hanging Bat-like upside down by Vale) that seek to remind us we’re watching a comic book superhero movie. The movie also nods not once, but twice, to Raiders Of The Lost Ark‘s swordsman scene.

Batman's coolest shot

Batman’s coolest shot

It’s difficult to believe that neither Vale nor fellow reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) would know why Bruce Wayne – Gotham City’s most well-known businessman after all – is an orphan. Furthermore, it stretches credulity that so many people fail to suspect the Joker (who, let’s not forget, had tried to kill the city’s citizens a short time earlier) has an ulterior motive when he announces he’ll be staging a night parade in which he’ll dish out millions in cash.

In a parallel with Gene Hackman’s casting of Lex Luthor in Superman, the film’s biggest name is its villain. Nicholson seemed like the most logical choice at the time and there are moments when he truly strikes the balance between humourous and homicidal. However, too often his performance feels like a big screen extension of Cesar Romero’s take in the 1960s camp TV show. Meanwhile, Keaton is better than you’d expect as Batman, although Wayne inevitably takes a back seat.

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton's Batman

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton’s Batman

The homage to Nosferatu when we first see the Dark Knight is nicely done, as is the nod to Batman creator Bob Kane (in spite of being refered to as a “dick” by Knox when he shows the young reporter a mock-up of what the Bat Man looks like). There’s also a cool moment when the Batwing flies in front of the moon. However, these moments are too few and far between to override the feeling that this is a film which has dated badly.

Burton himself summed up Batman better than any critic when he said on reflection: “I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”

Directors Who Should Call It A Day

I recently ran the Debuts Blogathon with Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop which examined the first features of directors from the length and breadth of world cinema.

One of the areas I was keen for each entry to examine was whether a director’s early output matched their later work. It’s rare to find a director with an unblemished record, but there’s nothing sadder than seeing one whose work you once fervently followed becoming a shadow of their former selves.

In the same way that too many highly respected icons of the big screen gradually transform themselves into jobbing actors (I’m talking to you De Niro), there are unfortunately numerous examples of directors whose later films are a stark contrast to their early career.

You may disagree with some or all of these, but the following are five directors who really should call it a day for the sake of their professional credibility.

Who are the directors you wish would call it quits?

John Carpenter

John Carpenter

From his under-appreciated stoner sci-fi debut Dark Star, Carpenter went on a near-spotless run that included such undisputed genre classics as Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live and, of course, The Thing. It was always going to be a challenge to keep that sort of hit rate up, but the poorly received Escape From LA ushered in a slow, steady decline. Carpenter’s since limped on to direct a number of critical and commercial failures, including the ill-conceived Chevy Chase-starring Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, Ghosts Of Mars and, most recently, the little seen horror The Ward. Although Carpenter’s involvement in the numerous shoddy remakes/reimaginings of his best films seems to take up more of his time these days, one can only hope he decides not to tarnish his once great reputation by sitting himself down again in the director’s chair.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola

It can be argued that it’s a little unfair to include Francis Ford Coppola on this list as his last three projects – Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) – are smaller, more personal films, but the decline in the quality of his output is sad indeed when you consider what a titan he was. There was no greater filmmaker during the 1970s – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) is as incredible a run as you’re ever likely to find – and Coppola recaptured some of this magic in his 80s movies Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. But the wheels started to fall off with 1990’s The Godfather Part III (not a terrible film by any means, but a pale shadow of its earlier chapters) and by the time of the Robin Williams ‘comedy’ Jack Coppola had turned into what we hoped he’d never become – a hack-for-hire.

M. Night Shyamalan

M Night Shyamalan

What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Or was he nothing more than a one-trick pony? The Sixth Sense announced Shyamalan’s arrival in some style, while its superior follow-up Unbreakable (his best film) and alien invasion movie Signs seemed to suggest he was the real deal (let’s forget the final five minutes of Signs just for now). Even 2004’s The Village had its moments, but the cracks started to show in 2006’s Lady In The Water, which features a film critic being horribly killed (in case you wondered whether Shyamalan has a sense of humour, that was your answer). From there his movies have continued to soil a once-promising career, most notably 2008’s The Happening, a film so baffling in its concept and so inept in its execution you have to admire the fact it got made in the first place.

Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma

Five years before Robert De Niro exploded onto the big screen in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets he got his big break in De Palma’s 1968 satire Greetings. De Palma actually gave De Niro his first screen appearance in The Wedding Party, released in 1969, but made six years earlier. For this alone De Palma deserves credit, although he didn’t need Bobby’s help to direct some genuine classics of late 70s and 80s American cinema, including Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1986) and the troubling Casualties Of War (1989). His last great work – Carlito’s Way – was made 20 years ago and in the intervening period his career has gradually nose-dived, from clunky sci-fi Mission To Mars, to the heavy-handed War on Terror polemic Redacted and deeply disappointing The Black Dahlia, which merely underlined his status as the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. To make matters worse, his most recent film, 2012’s Passion pales in comparison to his earlier erotic thrillers. Time to bow out Brian.

Tim Burton

Tim Burton

There was a time when I awaited a new Tim Burton film with genuine anticipation. In the late 80s and 90s Burton was responsible for a whole new aesthetic in Hollywood moviemaking. Burton-esque even became a term to describe a certain brand of weird and wonderful cinema, while his surprising appointment as the director of 1989’s hugely successful Batman became the template used by Marvel two decades later (Kenneth Branagh being chosen to direct Thor, for example). Burton has generally been at his best when sticking to more personal material; the problem is that he doesn’t stick to this, choosing instead to clutter his filmography with ever-more disappointing big budget studio pictures, from the misguided Planet Of The Apes remake, to the lacklustre Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, woeful Alice In Wonderland and boring Dark Shadows. There was hope in 2012’s Frankenweenie, but when taken alongside his recent output this feels like a blip in an otherwise stalled career.