Monday, September 5, 2011

Review: "Beetle Juice" Never Loses its Juice (Happy B'day, Michael Keaton)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 226 (of 2004) by Leroy Douresseaux

Beetle Juice (1988)
Running time: 92 minutes (1 hour, 32 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
WRITERS: Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren; from a story by Larry Wilson and Michael McDowell
PRODUCERS: Michael Bender, Richard Hashimoto, and Larry Wilson
EDITOR: Jane Kurson
COMPOSER: Danny Elfman
Academy Award winner

COMEDY/FANTASY with elements of horror

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Glenn Shadix, Annie McEnroe, Rachel Mittelman, Patrice Martinex, Dick Cavett, and Sylvia Sidney

One of my very personal favorite films and the film that made me a Tim Burton fan is Beetle Juice, the story of a young couple whose accidental deaths starts them on a journey of wildly bizarre exploits filled with uncanny events, tricky people, and fantastic creatures. Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland’s (Geena Davis) premature deaths in a car accident leaves them ghosts in their New England home. Getting used to death is one thing, but the Maitlands face an even bigger challenge. Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia (Catherine O’Hara), a pretentious New York couple, have bought the Maitlands’ home and Delia is determined to transform the old-fashioned abode into a postmodern art show place.

Adam and Barbara befriend the couple’s daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who is not only fascinated with all things morbid and macabre, but she can see the Maitlands. However, Adam and Barbara turn to Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a “bio-exorcist,” a mischievous spirit who claims he can exorcise the living, to chase Charles, Barbara, and their obnoxious friends from their house. But Betelgeuse has own evil agenda behind his guise of helping the undead young couple reclaim their home.

The concept was tailored made for director Tim Burton’s unique visual style, and he certainly molded the film with his “twisted” imagination and skewered vision, as he and his co-conspirators pack the film with clever ideas, fantastical objects and locations, and kooky gags. Beetle Juice was the last time Burton seemed to really let loose and have fun on a truly wacky filmed.

Still, some of the credit should go to the art director and set decorators, costume designers, SFX people, and make up artists, as the combination of these artists and craftsman created a film that gloriously combines pulp fiction nonsense, pop art, and modern art into one of the few films that looks and feels like a cool Looney Tunes cartoon. Also, Danny Elfman’s score for the movie is one of the great film scores of the last two decades of the 20th century.

When I first saw this film, I didn’t care for Michael Keaton’s performance as the title villain; at the time, his manic energy seemed forced and phony. Sixteen years later, it seems just right; go figure. The rest of the cast gives inspired performances that fit the film’s darkly comic tone, making Beetle Juice a unique film treat. It’s not a great film, (the third act seems rushed and… damaged), but I like it.

7 of 10

1989 Academy Awards: 1 win: “Best Makeup” (Ve Neill, Steve LaPorte, and Robert Short)

1989 BAFTA Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Make Up Artist” (Ve Neill, Steve LaPorte, and Robert Short) and “Best Special Effects” (Peter Kuran, Alan Munro, Robert Short, and Ted Rae)


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