Film Review: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Release Date: December 12th, 1996 (Hollywood premiere)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Jonathan Gems
Based on: Mars Attacks by Topps
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Black, Christina Applegate, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones, Ray J, Frank Welker (voice)

Tim Burton Productions, Warner Bros., 107 Minutes

Review:

“They blew up Congress! Ha ha ha ha!” – Grandma Florence Norris

While this isn’t one of Tim Burton’s most popular films, it is one of my favorites and I feel like it missed its mark because it’s not the type of film that would resonate with most people.

Mars Attacks! came out in late 1996, not too long after Independence Day ruled American culture that same summer. Maybe people were confused that this was a ripoff of it or that one big alien invasion movie was enough to digest but either way, I don’t think people realized that this was vastly different and sort of a parody of the genre while also being an incredible live action adaptation of the Mars Attacks trading cards that Topps put out in the 1960s. It’s like those who were kids in the ’60s no longer cared and the teens of the ’90s didn’t know the reference.

Still, this is a hilarious romp starring dozens of top notch celebrities where not a single one of them is actually safe. I mean, these Martians murder Congress, the President and even try to crush a troop of Cub Scouts with the Washington Monument. They are sick, sadistic and really, just friggin’ awesome. They are also voiced by Frank Welker, the guy who gave life to Megatron from the original and still greatest Transformers cartoon.

By the star power that this movie has, it’s clear that Hollywood got the joke and appreciated it even if audiences didn’t flock to see this. Still, it wasn’t a massive failure, by any means. It did fairly well but not as well as what Warner Bros. was probably hoping for with Tim Burton being a mega earner for the studio. While it took some time, the film did earn back the $100 million that was put into it. It was considered a box office bomb in the United States but it fared much better internationally.

This is one of the most hysterical films of the ’90s put out by a major studio. The humor is perfect, the tone is great and it pokes fun at so many different facets of Americana that it almost feels like it was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

The special effects look dated but they looked sort of cheesy in the mid ’90s. The film was supposed to have a hokey, old school vibe to it though. Really, the effects are great and they work for what this picture is. It’s not Independence Day and didn’t need to take itself as seriously in the visual effects department.

From a stylistic standpoint, the film really has a timeless feel to it. It merges modern style with ’50s and ’60s style in a seamless way that gives this film a magical quality.

Additionally, this picture boasts one of my favorite Danny Elfman scores of all-time. The theme is powerful and perfect and really fits that old school Elfman sound. Frankly, watching this film makes me appreciate and miss the quality of Burton and Elfman’s old school collaborations.

What really resonates with me is how this film balances comedy with how dark it actually is. It’s an absurd picture in the best way possible and shows that Tim Burton really has a dark sense of humor. Well, Beetlejuice was really effective in showing that aspect of Burton as well.

Mars Attacks! was underappreciated when it came out in 1996. It is still underappreciated today, as people that like to list out their favorite Tim Burton films always have this near the bottom of the list. Like I said, it isn’t for everyone but Burton fans, who understand Burton’s influences, should really love this picture.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Joe Dante’s Matinee and alien invasion B-movies of the ’50s.

Film Review: Ed Wood (1994)

Release Date: September 23rd, 1994 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Based on: Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Max Casella, George “The Animal” Steele, Juliet Landau, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Korla Pandit, G.D. Spradlin

Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 127 Minutes

Review:

“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” – Orson Welles

Ed Wood is a magnificent film. It is also the greatest thing Tim Burton has ever directed, which says a lot considering his massive body of work. I have also never enjoyed Johnny Depp and Martin Landau more. Additionally, the film features one of the best roles of Bill Murray’s career.

Shot in black and white, to mimic the time that Edward D. Wood Jr. lived in and the films he made, Ed Wood boasts some fantastic cinematography. It doesn’t just feel like a period piece shot in black and white as a gimmick, it actually has warmth, depth and is a character itself, within the film. It gives the movie a perfect tone and it is also matches up to the actual filmmaking work of Ed Wood, the director. When we see scenes being filmed for Plan 9 From Outer SpaceBride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda?, Tim Burton’s sets and visual tone match those films pretty flawlessly.

Martin Landau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Ed Wood, as horror legend Bela Lugosi. It was a fantastic performance and the best of Landau’s storied career. While it was great seeing him recognized and this film as well, I feel like it was deserving of other nominations. It did also win for makeup, the only other category it was nominated for.

Everyone in the cast, top to bottom, gave some of the best performances of their careers. Johnny Depp was absolutely captivating and charismatic as the title character. He brought real life to the legendary persona of Wood. He connected with the audience, as well as long-time Wood fans and gave an exciting identity and character to the maestro of bad cinema. He was sympathetic and you wanted nothing more than for Wood to succeed, despite the odds being stacked against him and the limitations of his abilities. Depp’s Wood had passion and heart.

Bill Murray plays Wood’s friend, a transvestite wanting to be transsexual named Bunny Breckinridge. Breckinridge was a collaborator with Wood and played a role in his most famous film Plan 9 From Outer Space. Murray did a fine job with the part, committed to Bunny’s flamboyant personality and strong desire to become a woman. This is my favorite of Murray’s more serious roles. Granted, he still brings an element of comedy but this is the first real dramatic role I remember seeing him play. He had panache and delivered his dialogue brilliantly.

Jeffrey Jones was a perfect casting choice for the psychic conman Criswell. He looked the part, acted the part and conveyed him as a real showman. Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette both did good as the leading ladies: Parker for the first half of the film, Arquette for the latter. For the role of Tor Johnson, there really was no better choice than George “The Animal” Steele. Lisa Marie was a good Vampira and Max Casella was a nice addition to the cast, as he is a really good actor that I feel is still underutilized. Lastly, Juliet Landau plays a small role but she really nails it. She was quirky, smart and pretty mesmerizing.

Ed Wood is a film about imagination and creation. It is also about passion. While this is a very romanticized version of the director’s life and work, it makes one want to be a dreamer and to follow those dreams, despite the world standing in the way. It also shows Wood’s struggles with his identity and who he is and how it should be okay to embrace who you are and not be scrutinized for it. While Wood wasn’t a great filmmaker, he was still a man ahead of his time. Ed Wood, the man, shows that you can have artistic and creative brilliance, even if it isn’t executed in the best way. He is a hero for those with a creative intelligence that have a hard time cultivating it into something spectacular.

This is a great period piece and a stupendous showbiz biopic. It was some of the best work of every talented person involved in the picture. Ed Wood is a true classic and a perfect homage to the man, his life and his work. And frankly, it is one of my favorite films of all-time.