31 Days to Scare ~ Beetlejuice (1988)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A recently-deceased husband and wife commission a bizarre demon to drive an obnoxious family out of their home

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Some movies feel like great equalizers, something we all can agree on even when we disagree on most everything else.  For me, Beetlejuice is one of those movies.  Even the hardest of hearts and the most unpleasant of critics are able to find something to praise in this loads of fun horror comedy first released in 1988.  Now celebrating it’s 30th Anniversary (and with a musical stage adaptation headed for Broadway in 2019), it’s a great time to revisit ‘the ghost with the most’ in all his ribald glory.

Director Tim Burton cut his teeth with many darkly comic shorts in the early ‘80s, making his big screen debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.  Three years after that and one year before he’d officially be catapulted into the A-List with the summer smash, career-defining adaption of Batman, he gave us this endlessly creative and visually captivating flick.  Though originally intended to be a much darker film (and almost starring Sammy Davis Jr. as the titular character) it was wisely steered in the direction of going for more laughs than shrieks.  Sure, there are scary parts to Beetlejuice but with its focus on dynamite practical effects and ingenious make-up (which would win an Oscar) the majority of film wants to make your jaw drop in awe instead of in a scream.

Adam and Barbara Maitland are just settling in to a two-week vacation at their home in postcard perfect Winter River, CT when they die in a car crash after careening off a picturesque covered bridge.  They find themselves trapped on earth in their previous home with its new tenants, pretentious NYC transplants. Though they try to get rid of the family first in their own newbie ghostly way, they eventually summon Beetlejuice, a bio-exorcist for the undead that has more effective ways of cleaning house.  When Beetlejuice sets his sights on marrying the goth daughter of the owners, the Matilands take further action to evict the trouble-making exorcist.

Though later on in his career Burton would use his actors more like scenery in service to his muddy CGI vision (yikes! Sweeney Todd!) here he has cast the film to absolute perfection.  Alec Baldwin (Aloha) and Geena Davis (A League of Their Own) ably play the slightly square recently deceased couple who sees their house go from Norman Rockwell perfection to new wave mania.  It’s fun to see Jeffrey Jones (Howard the Duck) and Catherine O’Hara (Frankenweenie) play off of each other’s small town discomfort in a Green Acres-sorta way.  The film also nicely introduces Winona Ryder (Mermaids) to a larger audience with Ryder nailing her adolescent ambivalence toward most everything she comes in contact with.

Even if he has the least screen time of any of the principal actors, when you hear the word Beetlejuice you can’t help but instantly think of Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Gung-Ho, Pacific Heights).  Making the most out of his limited appearances, Keaton is a live wire with enough energy to practically lift him off of the ground.  His make-up and costuming could have been limiting or in the hands of a lesser actor could have done the work for him but Keaton mines every opportunity to go big before he goes home.  If the Oscars had been a bit more free-thinking, it’s the kind of memorable performance that should have put Keaton into the awards discussion as an outside of the box nominee for Best Supporting Actor.

While Burton (Dark Shadows, Big Eyes) would go on to create they moody Batman and its sequel, he never has returned to this type of free-wheeling carnival of fun and that’s a damn shame.  He clearly knows his way around this tone and finds a perfect balance throughout.  When CGI became more available he started to rely on that way too much and all but abandoned the kind of in-camera effects and large scale production design employed here.  While his next film, Dumbo, looks like a heart-tugging triumph…all I can see is the overuse of CGI again.  If anything, Beetlejuice remains a reminder of the kind of filmmaker Burton originally started out as and what I hope he’ll continue to work back toward being.

This is one of the rare movies I manage to see at least once a year.  I watched it on a plane back in January and then attended a 30th Anniversary Screening of it recently and I could easily see watching it again before the year is through.   I’m seeing the musical in a month so I have a lot of Beetlejuice in my life right now…and so should you!

Down From the Shelf ~ A League of Their Own

5

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters join the first female professional baseball league and struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry.

Stars: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Jon Lovitz

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:   There are certain and specific indicators that summer is on its way: the greening grass and budding trees, the rising temps and thawing snow drifts, the appearances of short shorts and sandals (with and without socks), and the baseball season openers from coast to coast. Just as bears come out of hibernation and seek nourishment, so do the baseball fans trek to their stadiums hoping to catch a fly ball. Baseball has been called the national pastime and baseball films remain the most popular subject for sports related films.

Up until A League of Their Own was released in the summer of 1991 (and pretty much ever since) the baseball genre has been dominated by films that targeted the male moviegoers. Whether it was appealing to their comedic side (Major League, Bull Durham) or tugging at their macho heartstrings (Field of Dreams, The Pride of the Yankees), you’d be hard pressed to find a strong female presence that wasn’t relegated to the arm of the star pitcher or as the wife of the general manager.

So it’s no wonder that A League of Their Own was such a big deal because not only did it introduce a female centered film but shone a light on a time in history that many had forgotten or were unaware ever existed. For 12 years, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League operated with 15 teams featuring a grand total of 600 players. With World War II occupying the public interest, baseball executives like Philip Wrigley and Branch Rickey wanted to make sure that the sport wasn’t forgotten during that difficult time.

To keep the cherished sport viable and considering so many men were away at war, the executives turned to female players to begin this new league that would make history. Though looking at it now you can see the sexist and misogynistic overtones (short tunic dresses replaces the baseball pants worn by men), it was the athleticism of the women that left the lasting impression on the record books.

Director Penny Marshall was on a winning streak at the time and though her original casting of Debra Winger and Moira Kelly as ace baseball playing sisters recruited from a rural town who join the Rockford Peaches fell through, I think she was dealt a better hand by bringing Geena Davis and Lori Petty in as replacements.

The rivalry that develops between scrappy pitcher Kit (Petty) and her sister Dottie (Davis) plays out among other small slice of life stories brought to us by a talented cast of women that not only act their parts with style but trained hard to become believable baseball players. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell became fast friends offscreen, mirroring their Abbot and Costello-like relationship onscreen and Megan Cavanaugh is a scream as the shy Marla who makes up for her lack of camera-ready looks by consistently knocking balls out of the park.

Let’s not forget that some notable men pop up here as well: though Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Joe Versus the Volcano) is the top-billed star, he’s wise enough to find a balance between making sure his character is developed while being sure not to step on any moments that spring forth from the likes of Davis and Petty. Jon Lovitz has a dynamite supporting role as a hysterically crass recruiter and Marshall gives him just enough slack to do his shtick without steamrolling everyone else.

Inspired by a story from Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, the script from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (Splash!, Gung Ho!, Parenthood) is fairly episodic and isn’t above introducing a character for a comedic bit only to ignore them completely for the rest of the film. This approach actually helps the film not feel as long as it is by breaking up the action into what could be seen as innings along the way.

Most sport films tend to wear me out when we’re in game mode but the opposite is true in A League of Their Own. Marshall and the screenwriters have packed so much into their fictionalized story that much of the film’s developments happen on the field, in the dugout, or in the locker room. The scenes where we are away from the baseball diamond are the ones that dip in interest, but luckily those are few and far between.

Lovingly book-ended with real players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the film still works all these years later because baseball seems to be (to me) the one sport that is truly timeless. The comedic moments are still light and play off the strengths of the actors while the more dramatic sequences are handled with an honest hand, though it’s easy to see some manipulation at play.

This is one film I find myself revisiting often and I always walk away with a sense of satisfaction because there’s a winning completeness to the movie as it touches all the right bases. So now that the days of summer are creeping their way toward us, it’s time to dust off this film too if you haven’t seen it recently.

Make sure to check out Forgotten Films for more reviews in the Big League Blogathon!

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