Saturday, June 17, 2017

R.I.P., STEPHEN FURST, BROTHER FLOUNDER (1955 -2017)



“This is Kent Dorfman. He’s a legacy from Harrisburg…”

Like we all must, Stephen Furst, the actor who brought Kent Dorfman, a.k.a. the sweet, portly Delta Tau Chi pledge known as Flounder, to life, has passed away. It’d be hard to argue that Furst’s life wasn’t far too short—after all, he was only 63 years old. But though other actors and well-known figures who have passed recently may have made a more lasting or profound mark on the lives of the audience they left behind, Furst’s death hurts a little bit more for me than those other losses, for a couple of reasons.

In 1977, when I was a freshman at the University of Oregon, I landed a spot as an extra on the set of National Lampoon's Animal House—specifically, I was cast as a “Delta pledge,” and I also ended up serving one memorable afternoon/evening as a stunt double. Both of these roles put me in frequent proximity to Stephen Furst, who was a rookie on the set of Animal House sort of like I was—Kent Dorfman was his first big role in a Hollywood movie, after three minor and forgettable previous appearances. 


The Saturday before shooting began, another extra and I accompanied Furst and Tom Hulce to get our “senior pictures” taken (the shot of Furst, memorably booed on-screen, is seen above), and like this wacky morning jaunt to a photo studio in nearby Springfield, for every encounter I ever had with him during shooting Furst demonstrated himself to be a very genial, pleasant fella, not unlike Dorfman himself, who was never one to put on actorly airs as a way of separating himself from the locals.

During the shooting of the Dexter Lake Club sequence, my BFF Bruce and I spent an amusing afternoon between takes hanging out with him, Hulce and actress Eliza Garrett (sympathetic receptionist at Emily Dickinson College, where Faun Lebowitz did all her pottery work—I had such a crush on her!), talking about movies and other things that made us feel like we (Bruce and I) really were an important part of what was going on. And I ended my association with the production of Animal House as Furst’s stunt double—it was me, not Furst, in the Lincoln Town Car on the last day of shooting as it crashes its way out of the Dexter Lake Club parking lot. (The costumer felt it necessary to put a down jacket underneath my suit jacket to approximate Furst’s girth, on the unlikely occasion that I could be seen on film.) After Animal House was over I never heard from Stephen Furst again, though seeing him continue on in relative success with his career afterward, in movies like The Dream Team and TV shows like St. Elsewhere, always made me feel a little bit happy, seeing that one of the good guys who didn’t look like everybody else on the Hollywood circuit had somehow made it into the club.


But Furst’s death has also hit me hard because the actor, who had made his struggle with diabetes front and center in his public life—he became a fervent spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association—ended up succumbing from complications directly related to the disease. Though I am privy to 0% of the details of what life what like for Stephen Furst in his final years, it’s fairly apparent that I’ve had a more successful time coping with diabetes than he had, and his passing reminds me that there are many others who are a whole lot less lucky than I am too. I could never truly relate to the stories of his struggles to get work as an actor that he regaled Bruce and I with on that afternoon in Dexter Lake, though I was always glad to recall how comfortable he felt telling them; but I can definitely relate to the struggles endured during what must have felt to him like a constant uphill battle with his body to ward off and control the effects of the disease that eventually killed him.

As a cautionary tale for folks like myself, and others who may be hovering in pre-diabetic status, Furst’s story is an important one to hear. But I’m also glad that I’m one of the lucky ones who can say they spent time with this personable, talented actor when he was just getting his feet wet. After I finish typing this, I’m gonna step outside on my back porch and let loose a hearty “Hey, Niedermeyer!” in his honor, and remember just how big a hand Stephen Furst had in making National Lampoon's Animal House the rich and delightful comedy classic that, nearly 40 years later, almost no one would dispute it as being. In my mind, that’s a legacy that’s every bit as impressive as Kent Dorfman’s, and it’s one that will carry Stephen Furst’s memory for a long time to come. Rest in peace, Brother Flounder.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

GOOD-BYE, ADAM WEST (1928-2017)



It's kind of hard for me to undersell the impact Batman and Adam West had on me as a boy. I was six years old when the show premiered, and it was the first program I can remember seeing previews for and *begging* my mom to commit to letting me watch it when it finally came on. Like most every boy my age in the mid '60s, I had a makeshift costume, a lunchbox, a plastic Batmobile, the Batman TV soundtrack (I still own the original LP), and of course the comic books, which never seemed quite as captivating to me compared to the vivid pop-art energy of the series. And hardly least of all, Batman introduced Julie Newmar's Catwoman to me, who in turn introduced a whole other set of feelings to this six-year-old-- fear and sex all rolled up into one inexplicable but ooh-la-la! package. (I'll spare you, and my mom, the details.)

But all of it revolved around West and his unique ability-- was it that sonorous, slightly quizzical delivery?-- to somehow play Bruce Wayne and Batman straight-up, yet ensure that a clever camp sensibility remained the foundation of his performance. He never wink-wink-nudge-nudged the audience, and certainly I probably wouldn't have been aware of it at six years old even if he had. Throughout his run as Batman there was a three-ring circus of exploding craziness surrounding Gotham City, and he was the steadfast-and-true ringleader, the one against whose unflappable reserve and intelligence all the rest of the silliness demanded to be measured. I loved him. I loved the show. It was the center of the universe for me when I was too young to know any better. And what a delight it was to discover, years later as an adult, that Batman wasn't the simple crap-fest that so many of the shows I liked as a kid often turned out to be, but instead a wholly aware, sharply funny collage of color, sound and pop absurdity, all built around the sturdy totem provided by Adam West.

As did everyone to whom that series meant so much, I woke up this morning to the news that Adam West passed away at the age of 88 after a brief battle with leukemia. Holy Undertaker, it is the end of the line of Batman this time! But what bat-tastic memories he made. Thanks, Mr. West. This morning my bat cowl is off to you. 



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WALTER HILL'S THE ASSIGNMENT



Without much due pomp or circumstance, Walter Hill’s newest movie, The Assignment arrived on home video this past week. In an age where superheroes and endlessly recycled ideas are the coin of the realm, when a director like Hill is perceived by studio suits (if they’re even old enough to remember who he is or what he did) as past his prime, this delirious noir, a tale of two revenges meted out with methodical fury and shot through with the director’s usual gritty visual poetry, emerges as being squarely in the grand tradition of what critic Charles Taylor has dubbed American shadow cinema. (The major difference between the mid ‘70s and now, of course, is that these days apparently you must seek out those shadows courtesy of your own home theater, because there’s no room for shadows when every multiplex screen has been purloined by interstellar shape-shifting robot vehicles, decrepit pirates and wonder women.)

In The Assignment, Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a brutally efficient killer and very hairy macho man who carries out a hit on the brother of Dr. Rachel Jane, a brilliant plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). Jane has been drummed out of her profession and forced to go underground, where she performs radical experiments on unwilling patients/victims supplied to her by a local mobster. Seething with the need to avenge her brother and assert her superior vocational mastery, Jane arranges to have Kitchen kidnapped and delivered to her operating theater, where she exacts a very particular brand of baroque vengeance, surgically transforming the macho killer into a woman. Right away The Assignment insists upon its position not as a serious undertaking of gender reassignment experience, but instead as a somewhat rococo pulp riff on the question of whether gender determines identity. Those predisposed toward offense should probably seek out some other violent thriller featuring a brutal, amoral protagonist who switches sexes and carries out a meticulous campaign of revenge.

Rodriguez, a punchy, independent presence from her Girlfight get-go, routinely traffics in roles which emphasize feminine allure gilded with a more traditionally masculine toughness, and she delivers a confident, convincing performance, effortlessly reminding us that the murderous instincts within won't be quelled by the inconvenience of unexpected gender reassignment. (In her male incarnation, decked out with a beard, chest hair, a somewhat bulbous nose and a ponytail, she resembles a slightly feminized Oscar Isaac.) Hill has a grand time in this section of the movie: in an early scene when the pre-surgery Kitchen emerges from a shower, Rodriguez and her director conspire to goose their audience's expectations of the sort of demure sleight-of-hand camera placement which would normally be orchestrated to keep Rodriguez’s sex under wraps, and the big reveal is comic showmanship of a high order. One can imagine Neil Jordan and Jaye Davidson standing up and applauding.

The manner in which the strings of the plot are drawn in tight, as Kitchen and Jane find their way to each other once again, through darkened hallways, rain-slickened streets and a tangle of clever, comics-inspired chronological juggling, is orchestrated with sardonic glee by Hill, who seems energized by the movie’s outlandish premise, and maybe also by the opportunity to once again get his hands around the process of making a feature—watching The Assignment, one of the things you sense most of all is how much fun Hill seems to have had making it. The movie, acutely aware of its outrageousness, revels in Hill’s mastery of neo-noir atmosphere, but it’s also brilliantly sustained in its unwillingness to take matters too far over the top into mindless grotesquerie.


This principle is best embodied by Weaver’s perfectly modulated performance. The actress, never one to surrender too quickly to histrionics, manages to find a delicious way of hitting the rafters by underplaying Jane’s sinister, insistently academic vibe, especially in the scenes where she’s interviewed by the condescending doctor on staff (Tony Shaloub) at the asylum where she’s been committed. Like Hannibal Lecter sans appetite, she loves the game of condescending to her interrogator’s inferior intellect and second-rate analytical acumen by quoting Shakespeare and pointedly evoking Poe. (She quotes Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” as a means of justifying her sense of being above contemporary morality; he knows only the Vincent Price movies.) And Hill evokes the American master as well— early on, Jane leaves a picture of Kitchen from his previous life as a man for him/her to discover after she wakes up from the reassignment surgery, along with a note attached that reads, “Nevermore! Nevermore!”


But perhaps the niftiest thing about The Assignment, especially for those who have followed Hill’s career from his early days as a screenwriter (Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway) through his own run of distinguished action cinema, as a writer-director of works like Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort and Trespass, is the vigor and style that still courses through his movies. This new one is surely not an example of top-tier Hill, but it’s great fun and it represents the sort of clean, determined action-movie aesthetic always championed by the director that seems to have been abandoned in the age of corporate cookie-cutter blockbusters. (Just put a late-period entry like this one up against something like Brian De Palma’s Passion and see if you can’t gauge the difference between the two directors’ comparative level of engagement.) In an interview with Hill in Film Comment earlier this year, critic Michael Sragow nailed The Assignment’s appeal when he described it as being “in the great tradition of uninhibited storytelling, from Edgar Allan Poe to EC Comics." The movie fulfills that juicy description and then some, and it suggests that, the unwillingness of financial backers notwithstanding, the greatest, headiest days of Walter Hill’s career are hardly locked down in past achievements. At 75 years, Hill’s still got it.

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Friday, June 02, 2017

ROAD TRIP: MAD MAX, BEYOND FURIOUS


A couple weeks ago I was musing on the 2017 summer movie road ahead and found myself coming up somewhat disappointed in the anticipation department by a season that seemed to have cornered a new and cynically celebrated market based almost entirely on the concept of recycling. Then, with only a smidgen of prompting, I recalled how only two summers ago the portion of the calendar typically more heavily weighted to the crash-bang-explode variety of cinema had a real cherry on its hands in the form of yet another “reboot” of a familiar property. But this one would turn out to be something a bit richer than just another chapter in the Alien or Transformers “universes.”

It was just over two years ago that director George Miller, after months of what seemed to be insurmountable Internet hype and breathless advance word, unleashed a new chapter in the Mad Max saga he introduced in 1980-- Mad Max: Fury Road.  And, surprise, it was the rare sequel which lived up to that hype, outstripping even the petrol-bomb energy of Mad Max and the influential post-apocalyptic muscle of The Road Warrior (1981) on its way to mega-hit status, multiple Oscar nominations (whaaaat?) and six wins, a heady sweep of the technical awards which was tarnished only by Miller himself failing to take home the Best Director award and the movie’s loss of the big prize to Birdman.

Of those two, which movie would you drop everything to see right now? Well, if you have a jones to avoid the teeming masses headed out to see Wonder Woman this weekend and seek a worthy alternative, you could fire up the Blu-ray player and revisit Miller’s super-fueled demolition fantasia (which, after last year, may seem less outlandish and more foreboding, politically speaking, that it did before) in the environs of your own home theater.

Or, if you live in Los Angeles, you can experience Mad Max: Fury Road on a double feature with The Road Warrior, arguably the series’ two peak achievements, big and loud and projected in 35mm at the New Beverly Cinema, which is, outside of seeing it IMAX or the drive-in (like I did the first week Fury Road opened), the full-throttle best way to experience Miller Time. The double bill plays June 2 and 3, and I thought the best way I could tip my hat to the occasion was to revisit the piece I wrote for FOVC two years ago, when the moviegoing public was just starting up their engines to take on Fury Road, and when I was still processing the eye- and mind-boggling, as well as sublimely unlikely achievement Miller had managed to turn wild and loose upon the world. I hope the piece fires you up to head out to the New Beverly this weekend if you can, or at the very least revisit the Mad Max digital domain at home. (Maybe for the first time? Could there be someone inclined toward action cinema out there who has held out on seeing Fury Road for two years?) Miller’s movies truly are the rockers, the rollers, the out-of-controllers, fuel-injected suicide machines drunk on fumes and hurtling down a nihilistic highway rippling with heat and streaked with rubber and blood. 

Enjoy.

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You can practically feel the whole drive-in history of revenge-oriented biker pictures come roaring up from behind and crashing through the beginning of George Miller’s 1980 original Mad Max, informing the movie’s every lunatic move and guiding it as it charts a change in trajectory for the course of business-as-usual action filmmaking to come. Even the American International Pictures logo that accompanied the movie’s American release, which was initially shown in a dubbed version populated by American actors, lent a sense of connection to movies like The Wild Angels (1966), The Born Losers (1967), Hells Angels on Wheels (1968), The Cycle Savages (1969) and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), many of which had been staples on the American International menu.  (AIP’s The Born Losers gave birth to its own mythology, introducing audiences to actor Tom Laughlin and a character, Billy Jack, whose next movie appearance would set him on a different sort of vengeance trail.)

Mad Max feels out-of-control dangerous right from the beginning, its high-powered cars thundering across a bleak, but still recognizable landscape on a high-octane trip to oblivion. (The complete societal collapse which would characterize the subsequent Mad Max films is here still only a work in progress.) Miller sets the movie’s high-speed action low on the highway—the threat of road burn seems constant-- and so thoroughly redefines the concept of that staple of ‘70s action filmmaking, the car chase, and the level of stunt work required to realize his anarchic, yet graphically elegant vision, that there could be no looking back, only constant forward motion.


For me, there may still be no single moment in Miller’s action portfolio to match the hair-raising sight in the 1980 film of the Night Rider’s car making an evasive move to avoid a wrecked truck and skipping sideways down the road (along a slightly compressed focal plane) before crashing in a ball of flame into another pile of cars. Miller’s signature image, that of a pair of bloodshot eyes opening wide in horror and intercut with the moment of impact, gets its grand, unforgettable introduction in this sequence.

Mad Max is, of course, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a traffic cop charged with maintaining the last vestiges of law and order in this increasingly shattered world, who will lose everything—wife, child, sanity— to an even madder band of punk bikers, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), before the first picture is over. Mad Max’s final image, that of a deadened Max speeding down a seemingly endless night-shrouded road, leads straight into The Road Warrior’s dried-up, post-gas wars organizational breakdown, where paradigms of societal cooperation have disappeared in a desperate scramble for enough juice to keep the throttle wide open.


Miller’s 1982 sequel, known in Australia simply as Mad Max 2, sets the pattern of Max as a wanderer and reluctant savior pressed into the service of a cause that is not his own—he only wants to scavenge for “guzzoline” and keep moving fast enough to keep his demons from catching up—that would become the series template to date. The landscape in The Road Warrior is even more barren, the mad punks now even more numerous, more scurrilous, motoring about in a fleet of vehicles seemingly cobbled together and modified from the world’s junkyard of mismatched spare parts. They’re led by the likes of the shrieking, Mohawk-capped Wez (Vernon Wells) and the unforgettable Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), with his strangely Nordic vocal stylings and the throbbing, mutated skull at all times covered by a goalie’s mask. (Jason Voorhees would popularize the look later that same summer in Friday the 13th Part III, but Miller and the Humungus got there first.)


The nomadic band of survivors with whom Max hooks up may be considerably less individually fascinating than their villainous counterparts (some things never change, even after civilization crumbles). Even so, the company of good guys include Bruce Spence’s vividly comic Gyro Captain (“Remember lingerie?”); a mechanic (Steve J. Spears) with useless legs who is hoisted about, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, on a crane; a warrior (Virginia Hey) who resembles Jennifer O’Neill in extreme survival mode; and the unforgettable Feral Kid (Emil Minty), who seems at times only one or two steps past Land of the Lost’s Chaka on the evolutionary timetable.

Miller doesn’t tip his hand until the end, after he’s finished his sequel’s mission of upping the ante on Mad Max’s insane vehicular propulsion with a climactic truck-car chase that would be the gold standard for years to come, but the saddened, articulate narration with which The Road Warrior begins (“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories…”) and ends (“As for me, I grew to manhood…”), turns out not to be the words of an older Max. That narration turns out to belong to the Kid, spoken from a time long after the movie’s story, and the personage of Max himself, has faded into the past and become myth. It’s just the right touch to send Max off into another endless night, its dark skies choked with burning rubber and exhaust fumes, a weary, burnt-out hero relieved to be alone yet again.


Unfortunately, he doesn’t stay alone for long. The opening of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) finds Max wandering yet again, some years after the events depicted in the previous films. But quite unlike Mad Max and The Road Warrior, this time our hero doesn’t burst into the frame through the air-gulping carburetor chambers of a nitro-fitted V8 Interceptor. Rather tellingly, he’s first seen rolling across the endless, blighted landscape sitting in a crippled vehicle being pulled by a team of camels. Then he’s set upon by an airborne Bruce Spence (not playing the Gyro Captain this time—he’s barely playing any character this time) who separates Max from his carriage, thus forcing him to trudge into a strange boondock city called Bartertown on foot. It isn’t long before Max is co-opted into the town’s strange slave society, where brutal one-on-one fights are staged for the amusement of the citizenry, of course, but even more so for that of Bartertown’s evil overseer, the Amazonian wonder known as Auntie Entity. (Auntie Entity is played by Tina Turner, who should have dropped the mic after charring the screen as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s Tommy—there’s just no topping that cameo.)

There are several darkly humorous, designed-to-be-quoted lines in the Bartertown section of MMBT (“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s… dyin’… time!”), but everything leading up to the fight sequence feels arbitrary, overstuffed and indifferent, and so does the fight itself, as it turns out. The danger beneath the Thunderdome feels too safe, too prescribed, and nearly inert— now there’s a word fans of the previous two chapters would hope never could be used in describing a Mad Max movie. And it doesn’t help that the outrageous, occasionally lyrical bombast of Brian May’s scores, which lent the first two films a patina of Wagnerian tragedy, has here been replaced by the nondescript orchestral ornamentation provided by Maurice Jarre. (Turner’s pop hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” heard over the end credits, is the movie’s more memorable musical contribution—it may be the best thing about the movie, period.)


The metaphorical wheel-spinning continues when Max, having emerged victorious from the Thunderdome’s two-men-enter, one-man-emerges scenario, is banished from Bartertown and left for dead in the desert. This being a sequel with seemingly at least one eye on the looming shadow of Steven Spielberg, Max is rescued by a group of lost children, survivors of an air crash who think he’s the savior prophesized in their favored myth of a downed pilot, Captain Walker, who will someday return and lead them out of desolation. At this point, one can actually feel the movie creaking under the weight of too much applied warrior hero mythology. The second half is overpopulated by these charmless, uninteresting kids and Max’s halfhearted attempts to get them to understand that he’s not who they think he is, with Miller himself seeming all too willing to indulge the logy import of the Max mythology.

The demands of the plot find Max and kids breaking back into Bartertown to perform a rescue and hotfooting it out of town on some sort of train truck, pursued by Auntie Entity and her minions in another set of underimagined vehicles which look for all the dystopian world like mutated golf carts. And it’s here you may connect the movie’s general malaise and lack of narrative energy to the fact that it’s been an hour and 20 minutes before anyone in MMBT even fires up an engine. Eighty minutes without any car action. In a Mad Max movie. Even the vehicle used by Max and company in their escape is a disappointment—they hightail it aboard a modified train engine which rides a quite finite set of rails. Incredibly, the forward motion that all but defines the force of Miller’s vision is largely absent in this movie, and what there is remains restricted to a simple line—no side trips, straight ahead and, despite the presence of those pursuit vehicles, no real chaser.

This climactic rundown here seems as perfunctory and prescribed as everything else, and by the end it’s not just Max who seems exhausted—the entire series seems to have limped to a dead end. And a 30-year change of pace for George Miller, which included the production of three great movies made for children that couldn’t have been less post-apocalyptic—the Oscar-winning Happy Feet, the Oscar-nominated Babe and its brilliant sequel Babe: Pig in the City-- seemed to confirm that the saga of Mad Max would, in fact, be left alone to limp to an unsatisfying conclusion.


But now, after about 15 years of trying to make it happen, George Miller, the movies’ great, now-70-year-old punk of the pop epic apocalypse, has finally returned with a new Max Rockatansky and a renewed sense of urgency. His new movie, Mad Max: Fury Road seems like an epic summing up of everything that has ever compelled Miller to put images on film, and the use of similar words in their titles will serve to remind viewers, if they could possibly forget, which summer action spectacular truly embodies the furious. Essentially one long, extended chase, Fury Road is so dynamically, startlingly choreographed that you begin to feel as though Miller himself is possessed by the glorious promise of unchecked propulsion, directing his picture almost as penance for, and an exorcism of the inertia that plagued MMBT.

Mel Gibson has been replaced as Max by Tom Hardy (Locke, The Dark Knight Rises), and—no slight on Gibson, who always carried Max’s cynicism with the sort of gravitas from which one could hardly look away-- the new casting registers like an upgrade right out of the box. Hardy’s opening narration seems similar to that which opened The Road Warrior, but this time the speaker’s identity is no mystery, cuing us not toward any mythopoetic perspective on Max but instead offering a clue to the identity of the voices bashing around in his head. “I am haunted by those I could not protect,” he intones, “running from the living and the dead,” those dead embodied by the vision of a pleading pre-teen girl who addresses him as “Dad” and whose continual appearances undermine what’s left of his sanity.  (Fans of the series will likely remember that the child lost by Max in the first film was a toddler and a boy.)


Max is soon captured and enslaved by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, once the Toecutter), a psychotic dictator irradiated and ravaged by disease who presides from behind a sardonic metal rictus over the Citadel, a literal oasis in the desert where greenery is cultivated and an entire people remains subject to Joe’s control over a deep, apparently endless supply of water, which he doles out on occasion in order to keep the rabble in line. This aspect of Fury Road is likely to resonate with an extra frisson for the drought-stricken citizenry of California and the rest of the Southwest—“Do not become addicted to water,” Joe offers with a patriarchal  sneer as the thirsty gather beneath him, awaiting their periodic drenching. “It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” (In the years since the gas wars that crippled society just before the time of The Road Warrior, we’re informed that the population has also set against itself in an attempt to secure possession of water rights as well. So we have that to look forward to.)

Joe also presides over a brood of female slaves who are literally milked and kept in perpetual pregnancy, the better to provide hopefully healthy, non-mutated, male offspring to perpetuate Immortan Joe’s lunatic rule. But not all females are exploited for procreational purposes. Joe’s right-hand woman (who just happens to be missing her own left arm) is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce warrior who is sent out on a mission to collect up a supply of gas and bullets which will keep the Citadel mobile and defended. But what Joe doesn’t know is that Furiosa has smuggled five of his most prized females, two of whom are pregnant, along with her— unbeknownst to anyone, they’re really headed for the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” a mysterious oasis of plenty where Furiosa was born. She intends to deliver the women to a new world where they can take up residence far away from the oppressive patriarchal rule of Joe and so many others like him.


As is so often the case, in movies as in life, the getting there turns out to be almost all the fun. Joe and his Warboys, mounted on a delirious assortment of surreally modified vehicles, each one seemingly more awesome than the last, give chase. (Here a special, awe-inspired salute must be reserved for the movie's production designer, Colin Gibson.) Max is literally mounted on the front of one pursuit vehicle, driven by a dying Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who seeks a glorious death while siphoning off Max’s replenishing supply of plasma. (Nux refers to Max as his “blood bag.”) As critic David Edelstein observed in his splendid assessment of the movie for New York magazine, seeing Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time may involve a slight disorientation, a sensation that the movie has started mid-story, and it’s something of a marvel to realize how Miller and co-scenarists Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, dole out important character information in seemingly reverse order, setting up revelations instead of simple backstory. A second viewing certainly relieved me of the obligation to try and beat the clock of the movie’s relentless pace, figuring out relationships and situations on the fly, and also made clear that everything you need to know is just as likely reinforced by what Miller and his brilliant cameraman John Seale are showing as much as what the characters can tell. And there is a lot to process.

But part of the joy of experiencing this movie is recognizing the degree to which its chaos is precisely modulated, our eyes being offered exactly what we need to see. Yet the movie never plays like a control freak’s vacuum-packed vision. The action sequences are breathless and relentless, but somehow Fury Road never tires you out. Part of that may have something to do with never getting the sense that Miller, despite this being the fourth picture of the series, is repeating himself. He shows us some of the most insane action choreography ever committed to film, edited at a pace that is much more in keeping with up-to-the-minute action movie velocity, yet he never loses the audience in a clutter of cutting. The fighting, man on man, vehicle and vehicle, is all staged and assembled with intense graphic intelligence and awareness—one action leads logically to another, and we’re left to follow a line of visual thought rather than throw up our hands in frustration at not being able to sort out shards of edited flash meant to generate artificial excitement.


And occasionally, mid-chase, Miller pulls back to orient the pursuer and the pursued in a long shot stretching over miles of desert, doling out an amused god’s sense of geographical and spatial relationships, a gentle reminder that no moment of respite can ever last too long.
There are levels of wit to discover within the design of almost every shot of this picture too, and you may find yourself laughing a lot in between shallow, adrenaline-fueled breaths. Film buffs will delight in how nods to filmmakers as disparate as fellow Aussie Peter Weir and Andrei Tartovsky have been woven into the landscape of motion within Miller’s points of reference. In one of my favorite seemingly tossed-off moments, during the quiet aftermath of a raging sandstorm, a long shot of a desert mountain turns out not to be quite what we thought it was. During one extended sequence, the front end of Furiosa’s truck catches fire and she uses the cowcatcher attached to its nose to churn up a giant cloud of red earth to extinguish the flames, a move which is then followed by a quick shot of the carburetor sucking in a forceful gulp of air. And when Max is finally given a proper introduction to the female cargo on the truck, Miller stages them hosing themselves off in what might, in other circumstances, register as the world’s end of wet T-shirt contests. Max, however, is more practical— he keeps a shotgun pointed in their direction and douses himself with a mighty drink of water.

Hardy is terrific here, going toe to toe with our memories of Gibson’s sexy disaffectedness in a feat of pop culture approbation that will likely stand alongside Mads Mikkelsen’s hijacking of Hannibal Lecter from the Oscar-winning likes of Anthony Hopkins. He even benefits from Miller’s delayed gratification strategy of keeping Max behind a harness mask for the first half hour of the movie—you’ll want more of Hardy’s magnetism, and Miller assures that you’ll get it.
Actually, the movie is full of faces you want more of— Hoult and Keays-Byrne, of course, but also Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Immortan Joe’s prized harem on the run, Nathan Jones as Joe’s overdeveloped son Rictus Erectus, John Helman as Slit, Nux’s rabid Warboy counterpoint, and Melissa Jaffer as the leader of the Vuvalini, a group of tough, weather-beaten old women who know the secret behind the Green Place of Many Mothers.


But as much as the movie is called Mad Max: Fury Road, it could just as easily be called Furiosa Road.  The beating heart of the movie is located within Charlize Theron’s angry, almost feral performance, and she holds the screen here in a way that she never has before. Her body language, her unwavering glare, the tension and wariness in her voice all contribute to Furiosa’s weary resolve—in this outrageously stylized role, she has never been more natural on screen, and certainly there has never been a character in this series so strong, so concisely delineated, one so capable of heroism and moral resolve, to provide a counter to Max’s haunted persona. Furiosa is the emotional nexus of the movie as well, and when her moment of devastation comes Miller and Seale honor her, and Theron, with the most memorable and moving of tableaux in a movie saturated with kinetic visual poetry.

Resistance going in to Mad Max: Fury Road is understandable—the movie has been showered with so much advance praise that it’s almost impossible not to feel like expectations have been unreasonably raised. And like Boyhood last year, the only reasonable response to the hyperbole is to remember that only time can reveal the enduring appeal and significance of any piece of art. Spending too much time debating whether or not Fury Road achieves instant masterpiece status is to risk missing what it has to offer in the here and now. But I would go so far as to agree with a friend of mine who felt, in his qualified admiration for Fury Road, that all other purveyors of modern action cinema should look at this thing and be embarrassed and ashamed.

In the here and now, Miller and company, as they did in 1980 with the original Mad Max, have once again raised the bar not only for the outrageousness of practical stunts, but also for how those stunts can be composed and arranged for maximum clarity and effectiveness and emotional resonance. In an age where computer-enhanced imagery (and there is some on display here) is the coin of the realm and editing has been reduced to slamming a succession of images together with little regard for what they all add up to, the relentless physicality of Mad Max: Fury Road is a particularly welcome tonic. While watching this amazing movie a second time last night and considering the prospects of every other action movie of the summer scheduled to follow in this one’s wake, I was reminded of the words of Bill Paxton’s panicked marine sergeant in Aliens. That’s it. Game over, man. 

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

NOTES ON TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME AND TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN



By the time you read this some of the secrets of Twin Peaks: The Return will have already been revealed. (The new series premieres Sunday, May 21, on Showtime.) As someone for whom Showtime is not available, I’ll have to spend the next four and a half months—the new run extends to 18 episodes, all directed by David Lynch—sequestered from spoilers, and probably from the Internet itself, in a perhaps ill-fated attempt to keep things fresh until the show starts appearing on streaming services or on Blu-ray. Which means also that I’ll have more time than the more premium cable-conversant viewer to rewatch the original 29 episodes from 1992-1993 and get reacquainted with the squirming underbelly of life in the small Washington town which seems fearfully and fatally tuned to a thrumming frequency of evil (transmission source: The Black Lodge) that seems, for the thankful viewer, endlessly weird and endlessly renewable.



My own re-immersion in Twin Peaks has begun with revisiting Lynch’s widely reviled 1992 feature film prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and it’s been something of a relief to discover that the movie feels much more like a fully realized masterwork than the case of fatally flawed faux-surrealist doodling it appeared to these eyes to be in 1992. The movie opens with a declaration of intent—a field of static is seen on a TV screen, which is swiftly crushed by the blunt instrument that will do in Teresa Banks, the young drifter whose murder presages that of Laura Palmer and effectively begins our journey into the series’ world of secrets.

TP:FWWM  is definitely a departure from the standards and practices of early ‘90s network television— one wonders what will result from the relative absence of restrictions on the new series, combined with the relative escalation of coarseness on movie screens in the near two decades since Lynch’s film premiered. But counter to my own initial complaint, TP: FWWM is also genuinely surrealist, perhaps more so than any other mainstream American movie I can think of, and perhaps more resonantly strange in its deadpan moments of repose than in its more stylistically disorienting moments. And yet even the film’s patented oddity, to which Lynch is clearly vocationally committed, comes in for some satirical jabs—near the film’s start, the strange, apparently nonsensical behavior of a redheaded messenger gets a straight-faced interpretation by Chris Isaak’s FBI agent that pokes fun at literal-minded viewers (like me) and then just as swiftly swerves away from the importance of the reveal to the movie at large. 



Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is also a deeply unpleasant film, one that is significantly more difficult to watch now, when I have my own 17-year-old daughter to shepherd, than it was 25 years ago. The greatness of Sheryl Lee’s performance may have been overstated in some quarters—she’s very good at suggesting the undercurrent of torment in Laura Palmer’s life, yet she can also seem frighteningly unmodulated when the emotions start to run too hot. But her fearlessness is indisputable, and she’s the beating heart that assures Lynch’s film never strays from its most potent purpose-- illuminating the nucleus of the series’ central mystery, which is not the fate of Laura Palmer as much as it is Laura Palmer herself. Lynch himself has suggested that the key to the new Showtime run of Twin Peaks episodes lies within the heavily coded landscape of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, news which ought to send shivers of delighted anticipation and dread through the ranks of the Twin Peaks fandom in equal measure. While the world sits down to the new episodes with a steaming cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie, or perhaps a heaping bowl of garmonbozia, I’ll be sequestered in my own version of The Black Lodge, ears covered, eyes shut, hoping to keep the secrets of the new Twin Peaks at bay until they can be absorbed in my own way.  Good luck with that, eh?

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ALIEN: COVENANT



Alien: Covenant handily passes the “Is it better than Prometheus?” test, which to some ears may sound like damning with faint praise. I found the previous film insufferable in its dawdling pretense and so chock full of lousy acting, with Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron and especially Noomi Raapace leading the charge, that it might have turned into giddy camp had director Ridley Scott’s tone throughout not been so sullen. (It takes a special sort of talent to make even Idris Elba look bad.) But Alien: Covenant, the next phase in the prequel-ized advancement of the Alien xenomorph universe mythology (sigh), manages to carry through and even clarify the father-son/creator-created musings generated in Prometheus and make them considerably more compelling, all by embracing the considerably less philosophical pray-run-scream tactics that characterized the first three terrifying films in the series. When you think back on those movies, you may be struck, as I was, by how unimportant knowing the backstory details of those acid-blooded, perfect-organism killing machines seemed when you were immersed in all the strobe-lit screaming and chest-bursting terror they so effortlessly delivered-- we knew why we were scared. And indeed, though no Prometheus-style slog, Alien: Covenant does at times feel weighed down by its commitment to telling the tale of how the iconic helmet-headed monsters came into being, and what they’re purpose might be.


That said, the movie is scary and it moves at a respectable clip, building to a rousing climax that bears comparison to the early films, even if it sometimes feels a bit too familiar—for some reason, screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper find it necessary to have their Ripley stand-in, played with admirable, sorrowful intensity by Katherine Waterston, proclaim “Let’s blow this fucker out into space!” not once, but twice, deliberately inviting a comparison that the concept of Waterston’s character is not capable of withstanding. That invocation also invites the viewer realize how often, for all the criticism of the Alien movies as simple vehicles for turning human beings into ground meat, there were truly memorable characters on the menu—think not only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but of the contributions from the late Bill Paxton (“Game over, man!”), John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Jeanette Goldstein, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen, to name but a few. Covenant’s crew is considerably less remarkable, though Waterston does well stepping into Weaver’s shoes, Danny McBride displays unexpected gravitas as ship’s pilot Tennessee, and Michael Fassbender, effectively reprises his Prometheus turn as the inquisitive, creator/creation-obsessed synthetic David, whose motivations have become less mysterious and more terrifyingly defined than they were last time around, and also as Walter, another synthetic, with programming significantly upgraded (and downgraded) from David’s relatively primitive level of perfection. (You can tell them apart by comparing David’s refined British enunciations with Walter’s flattened Midwestern delivery.) David’s interrogation/seduction of Walter midway through the film rates as an auto/homoerotic filmmaking tour de force-- Fassbender gets to make eyes at himself, an actor’s dream come true!-- even though the allegedly sophisticated audience I saw it with wasn’t sure how to react. (So of course, default position: hooting and giggling.)  

The scene comes off as a curiously revealing and naturally self-reflexive investigation of creation remarking upon itself—as do David and Walter, so now do the Alien movies themselves. If Ridley Scott is merely marking time by returning to the well, then at least it is at the service of perhaps his own most universally well-regarded creation, and the 80-year-old filmmaker, whose career has been anything but artistically consistent, seems if not exactly vital and engaged, then most certainly amused in a “give ‘em what they want” sort of way. You can practically hear his nihilistic chuckle as the Covenant floats away from the camera toward deep space and the commencement of the end credits—if the fate of the colonists left aboard seems more uncertain than ever, then at the least the Alien series itself seems destined to try to find the right balance between its impulse to scare and its suddenly more urgent philosophical underpinnings. For all its shortcomings—apparently in space no one can craft elegant dialogue or avoid making fatal mistakes of judgment—Alien: Covenant suggests the series might be on the right track, with maybe a work to stand alongside the brilliance of the original entries yet to be discovered, along with another deadly colony of xenomorphs, on the next uninhabited world somewhere in the infinite dark.

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THE BREAKING POINT (1950)



God bless the Criterion Collection for their forthcoming Blu-ray of a nifty 2K restoration of The Breaking Point (1950), the second swipe at Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, which is on the company's release schedule for August 2017. You may have heard of the first version... Bogie, Bacall, Hawks, “You know how to whistle, don’t ya?” Remember that one? Well, this one, the story of a down-on-his-luck charter boat captain Harry Morgan (John Garfield) who gets manipulated into a deadly smuggling run to help make ends meet, is directed by Michael Curtiz, and it trades Hawks’ larky, Casablanca-derived vibe for something decidedly darker, a daylight-splashed noir that somehow ferrets out all the chiaroscuro shadows in Hemingway’s material nonetheless. Throughout The Breaking Point, but especially in the movie’s riveting second half when Morgan allows himself to get roped into a second, even more dangerous scheme, Curtiz builds incredible suspense the way the rest of us eat lunch—usually without a second thought—and his camera is always finding fresh and fascinating ways to interpret the motivations, regrets and hidden fears of his cast of unusually rich characters.

Speaking of the cast, I don’t see how anyone could have improved on the work turned in here by John Garfield as Morgan, squirming to maintain his dignity under the thumb of bad luck, temptation and curdled expectations for post-war prosperity; Phyllis Thaxter as Morgan’s picture-postcard wife, a loving spouse whose boundaries will be tested and whose passions for her husband robustly hint at another sort of boundary, that of the Hollywood Production Code; Wallace Ford as the sloppy, sweaty, crooked-like-a-creek-bed lawyer Duncan; and most especially Patricia Neal (above), in one of her first juicy roles, as Leona Charles, an opportunistic party gal who hitches a ride with Morgan on his first ill-fated boat ride and who pops up at various junctures throughout the picture, forever testing Harry’s loyalty and his own personal morality with her own undeniable measure of impertinent allure.

The Breaking Point is a terrific, ultimately devastating movie which never lets its characters, or the audience, completely off the hook—its ostensibly upbeat, relieved conclusion is haunted by a silently insistent ghost of the consequences of Morgan’s moral lapses and it leaves you reeling, saddened, and convinced of the gravity of Curtiz’s achievement. This is one movie which deserves to be considered among the top-tier of Hollywood classics instead of languishing, as it has for a good, long while, in relative obscurity within the shadow of its more high-profile, star-driven predecessor. And now, thanks to Criterion, it’s gonna get its chance in the spotlight. The upcoming package includes new interviews with writer and scholar Alan K. Rode (Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy), Garfield’s acting instructor daughter Julie, a new video essay analyzing Curtiz’s masterful, almost-invisible directorial techniques, and a booklet essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, this looks like a shoo-in for one of the best Blu-rays of the year. And the August 8 release date plays right into the hands of those, like my dear wife, who may soon be compiling a birthday list for a certain someone who looks and sounds a lot like me.

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

MOTHER STANDS FOR COMFORT




Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce (1946)

She knows that I've been doing something wrong
But she won't say anything
She thinks that I was with my friends yesterday
But she won't mind me lying
Because

Mother stands for comfort
Mother will hide the murderer

It breaks the cage, and fear escapes and takes possession
Just like a crowd rioting inside
(Make me do this, make me do that, make me do this, make me do that)
Am I the cat that takes the bird
To her the hunted, not the hunter?

Mother stands for comfort
Mother will hide the murderer
Mother hides the madman
Mother will stay mum

Mother stands for comfort

Mother will stay mum

- Kate Bush, "Mother Stands for Comfort"


Francesca Annis (Lady Jessica Atreides), Dune (1985)


Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Angelina Jolie (Olympias), Alexander (2004)


Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo (1941)


Hye-ja Kim, Mother (2009)


Leopoldine Konstantin (Mme. Sebastian), Notorious (1946)


Piper Laurie (Margaret White), Carrie (1976)


Debbie Reynolds (Beatrice Henderson), Mother (1996)


Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas (1937)

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SUPERNATURAL? PERHAPS. BALONEY? PERHAPS NOT: TIM BURTON'S DARK SHADOWS MARKS ITS FIFTH ANNIVERSARY



Five years ago this weekend Tim Burton’s updating of Dark Shadows, the gothic/horror-themed soap opera which ran from 1966 to 1971 on ABC and was a seminal influence on a generation of budding horror fans (including Burton), was released on American movie screens, one weekend after Marvel’s The Avengers was still dictating the imaginations (and the wallets) of moviegoers everywhere. Given Burton’s track record with horror comedies (Beetlejuice being the primary example) and collaborations with Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands), a surprisingly low number of ticket-buyers seemed ultimately to care—the movie, which cost $150 million to make, and undoubtedly a hefty chunk of change more than that to market, would earn back only slightly more than half of that in the United States, though its final take globally came in at around $235 million. There were a few takers among critics, notably Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, Andrew O'Hehir in Salon and, perhaps with a little more ambivalence than the others, Richard Corliss in Time magazine, but overall the reviews tended far more toward the tepid, if not outright hostile side.

My expectations were in the basement, so, as one of those budding horror fans for whom the original Dark Shadows was such a formative experience, when I bought my ticket on that opening weekend five years ago I was surprised and delighted to discover just how accurately Burton’s movie hit my sweet spot. I ended up seeing Dark Shadows about four times, in the company of a couple of good friends who were just as enthusiastic about it as I was, before it was whisked out of theaters along with its burgeoning reputation as one of Tim Burton’s lesser achievements. And on this, the movie’s fifth anniversary, I’ve been jonesing to see it yet again. So, I decided it might be a good time to revisit my original review, posted on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on June 2, 2012, in the hopes of stoking those flames for myself and perhaps piquing the interest of someone who might have been passing on Dark Shadows ever since then because of all those grumpy reviews. Here’s what I had to say about Tim Burton’s impassioned, jokey yet strangely reverent, surprisingly personal visit to Collinwood Manor.

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Modern movie trailers usually don’t involve the blaring hyperbole of old Hollywood hucksterism-- The SINGLE most SEARING and SENSUAL SAGA ever to SWEEP across the BIG SCREEN!— or especially the blatant three-card-Monte-style deception of exploitation trailers like those from the glory days of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. (Every obsessive with a computer terminal is watching too closely these days for anyone to get away with that.) But even the best of today’s advance previews for big studio product often share a very similar aroma of desperation with those classic cinematic con jobs—the real difference, beyond a certain level of technical sophistication, of course, is that the stakes are often much higher, with the future financial viability of studios (or at least their executives) hanging in the balance. So, marketing departments, never the industry’s most risk-taking branch, tend to go bananas trying to pack every single element that might appeal to the film’s target demographic, especially if the movie is effects-heavy, into one 2.5-minute tracing of the movie’s entire narrative arc, sensitivity to spoilers and variances of tone be damned. (Can you imagine how this movie might be sold to today’s A.D.D.-addled audiences, as accustomed as they are to advance exposure to a movie’s every narrative secret?)

And sometimes a trailer is so accurate to the experience of watching the movie that 2.5 minutes is all anyone could be reasonably expected to endure—expanded to feature length, watching the same image-splintering rate of editing for two hours plus, enhanced by Hollywood’s most up-to-date ear-searing sound, can begin to feel like staring into a strobe light from inches away while seated on a crowded airport tarmac. (I submit to you Armageddon.)

And speaking of a trailer’s presumed relationship to the thing it is promoting, the Twitterverse, that harsh realm of snark, self-righteous acrimony and instant judgment, is a place where the release of a movie’s preview is evaluated with as much scrutiny as the movie itself, often sealing prejudicial points of view like mosquitoes in amber once the film is finally released, despite the possibility that the preview may not accurately convey the experience of actually seeing the movie itself. Certainly, the reception of the trailer for 2012’s John Carter exacerbated that bottom line-busting feature’s (unwarranted) bad buzz and fiery demise, and one could have been forgiven for assuming The End Was Nigh based on all the apocalyptic proclamations and Internet-equivalent traipsing around in sackcloth and ashes upon first look at the trailer for The Three Stooges. (The Four Horsemen were nowhere near the theaters where I twice saw the Farrelly Brothers’ slapstick tribute to the original Stooges. And it turned out that the movie was hilarious.)


So, when the trailer for Dark Shadows was unleashed about a month before its May 11, 2012, release there was plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and I was right at the front of the line of vocal worriers. The original show, produced by Dan Curtis, was a gothic soap opera which ran from 1966 to 1971-- after a tepid first year it gained unprecedented popularity by introducing to its cast Jonathan Frid as the vampire Barnabas Collins, who would spearhead the show’s move into all-out Hammer-influenced horror and suspense over the rest of its run and himself become an unlikely object of all sorts of pre- and post-adolescent passion. But many of us who carried fond memories of running home after school in a desperate attempt to not miss a single second of the series felt stunned and woefully let down by the trailer for Tim Burton’s new movie which, after a suitably atmosphere-drenched beginning, devolved into a mirthless and desperate minute and a half’s worth of wacky gags revolving around the attempt of a 200-year-old vampire (now played by Johnny Depp) to adjust to the glowing lava lamp-lit world of America in the early ‘70s. I had to admit that based on what I saw in the trailer, I could hold out little reasonable hope that this new take on Dark Shadows would be one that I would value or appreciate, and I carried those apprehensions with me as I took my seat on opening weekend.
  

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows begins with the sound of flutes which cascade off of Danny Elfman’s mournful orchestration like bitter rainfall-- the one musical motif in the score directly attributable to the TV show's original composer Robert Cobert-- and Johnny Depp’s voice, wave-shifted into a resonant replica of Frid’s sonorous British-tinged inflections, intoning, as the camera sweeps over a picturesquely dank and fog-enshrouded 18th-century Liverpool, “It is said that blood is thicker than water,” invoking the two liquids with which the protagonist will soon become tragically familiar on the coastal rocks beneath the cliffs of the aptly named Widows Peak. Barnabas, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who moves his family from England to America’s Northeast to establish a foothold in the fishing industry, dares to spurn the obsessive attentions of a lovely but intense chambermaid by the name of Angelique Broussard (Eva Green)-- who happens also to be a witch with a nasty vengeful streak. Angelique compels Barnabas’ true love, Josette (Bella Heathcote), to suicide, and he himself is cursed with eternal, bloodthirsty life as a vampire at her hand. With the help of the town’s easily manipulated torch-bearing mob, she arranges to have her would-be lover buried alive, setting up a none-too-comfortable 200-year confinement in which he must contemplate his punishment and suffer his newfound cravings.

At this point, Dark Shadows shifts gears and segues forward to what turns out to be 1972, but what’s immediately apparent is that the transition is not going to be as jarring as that trailer seemed to promise. (The blissfully rich cinematography, which also spans the centuries, comes courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel, who shot Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Inside Llewyn Davis.) The melancholy of the movie’s opening is somehow extended over 200 years by helicopter shots of a northbound Amtrak train snaking through the woods, and the music guiding the train is not Elfman’s signature evocations of the fearful regret buried in Cobert’s original score, but instead the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” which turns out, in this age of classic rock abuse, to be a perfectly sublime choice. 

On the train is a dead ringer for Josette, Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote), who is bound for a governess job at the dilapidated Collins family estate—Collinwood—where the remains of Barnabas’s ancestry—Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her parasitical brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and their two respective children, Caroline and David (Chloe Grace Moretz and the wonderfully named Gulliver McGrath)—are barely keeping the mansion’s doors open. They have some help, such as it is, from groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the psychologist brought in three years earlier to help David cope with the tragic drowning of his mother, but it’s clear that however haunted by tragedy, the Collins family’s better days seem to be past.


Soon enough Barnabas, unearthed by unfortunate construction workers who end up constituting his first happy meal in 200 years (the carnage is loosed in the golden glow of the movie’s funniest bit of product placement), joins his at-first suspicious but soon tentatively welcoming descendants in an attempt to loosen the stranglehold on the family fishing business held by a rival company, which just happens to be headed by a ruthless businesswoman who bears a luscious resemblance to the vampire’s age-old nemesis. Here the movie settles into its own groove, one marked by the contrast between the Europeanized flavor of Barnabas’ anachronistic manner and language, permeated as it is by the doomed romanticism of his gothic back story, and the laid-back vibe of the Me Decade. It’s a happy revelation when Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (working from a script originated by John August and Grahame-Smith) demonstrate there’s more juice in that contrast than just simple-minded Brady Bunch Movie-style wisecracks and sight gags. 

True, some of those gags wilt rather than blossom, but even so Burton fashions terrific moments out of Barnabas’s encounters with pop culture icons of the day like Super Fly and a certain buzzing Milton Bradley board game, and the wit embedded in Grahame-Smith’s dialogue is often sharper, more off-kilter funny than the goods other filmmakers might have settled for. At one point Barnabas suggests they throw a ball to reassert their family’s prominence in the town. Sullen, stoned Caroline counters that no one throws balls anyone, they throw happenings, ones that have live rock music and plenty of booze, to which Barnabas replies, with his characteristically sonorous enthusiasm, “We shall have spirits enough to fill a schooner’s hull!” (It is told that the low-grade rumble created by Caroline’s epic eye-rolling could be discerned for countless miles down the Eastern Seaboard.)


The movie is of course also in love with that gothic sensibility, a surprising level of which is sustained marvelously by the sets, mixing the dark-wooded, shadowy old world architecture of European influence with shag-carpets, novelty phones and mile-wide lapels to hilarious effect. (The movie's set design is by Rick Heinrichs, who has created, among many other things, a spectacularly creepy/groovy chandelier for the main foyer of Collinwood that, upon closer inspection, looks like a giant crystalline octopus.) And it’s all topped off by a howlin’ wolf chorus of carved creatures that surround the opening of a grand fireplace and signal the opening of a secret passage into one of Collinwood’s deepest, darkest catacombs. But the most surprising thing about Burton’s take on this material is how well integrated the ‘70s comedy is with what amounts to not so much a parody of familiar gothic tropes as a sincere celebration of them, and some of the movie’s best instances of that celebration come in its use of the music of the period.

One of my favorite moments in the entire movie comes when Barnabas, in conversation with the newly sympathetic Elizabeth, sits at the organ and bemoans his curse. He lays his weary head down on the keyboard, and we ready ourselves for a gloriously ominous, full-throated pipe organ chord that will express, in familiar aural terms, Barnabas’s tortured soul. What comes out instead is ominous, all right, only the organ at which Barnabas sits turns out to be one of those electric organs so ubiquitous in the ‘70s, the ones that replaced less-affordable pianos in many homes and featured tacky built-in rhythm machines. The chords accompanying Barnabas’s anguish end up accompanied by a silly computerized conga beat that incongruously, and yes, gloriously underscores all that agony and dissonant passion. Having already mentioned the ghostly appropriateness of the Moody Blues, there’s also Moretz’s hilarious, insinuating slink across the foreground of a family dinner to the strains of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” (The use of Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything” during Barnabas and Angelique’s comically violent sex scene falls flat, however, largely because it’s too obvious and it doesn’t similarly link up those two incongruous narrative themes.)



But special mention should be made of the movie’s use of Alice Cooper as the evening’s entertainment at that aforementioned Collinwood happening. Burton fashions what could simply have been a marketing hook and an opportunity for a couple of wryly amusing lines (one of which you’ll be familiar with from the trailer) into a spectacular set piece in which Cooper’s performance of "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" is intercut with not only the action at the dance (which includes, if you look very quickly, appearances by four veterans of the TV series, including Frid, who died one month before this movie was released), but also a flashback to Victoria’s brutally sad, literally haunted childhood, neutralizing for the moment Heathcote’s somewhat recessive presence and suffusing the movie with an resurrected rush of romantic, emotional resonance between her and Barnabas. (It won’t be the last.)

Dark Shadows is a surprise in so many ways, but the lukewarm reaction to it in some quarters begs the question, has Tim Burton begun to wear out his welcome? (This recent parody seems to suggest as much.) Many might agree with one critic I read who wrote that the new movie is a disappointment because “(it) has much more to do with what goes on inside director Tim Burton's head than with any TV show, no matter how beloved.” Which prompts me to pose a question of my own-- Why shouldn’t it? Was not the Monument Valley of The Searchers and other John Ford films largely a product of the director’s romantic imagination, recognizable as it was reiterated by countless other directors in his wake? To be certain, Dark Shadows is an imperfect movie, almost by its nature in its status as a Tim Burton joint. Certainly there’s plenty of evidence here to spark the usual complaints, including the one that suggests he’s more of an art director than a director (the perfect rebuttal to which is that “Dwight Fry” sequence); or that he hasn’t the facility or the interest to tell a straight story, a trait that many diverse, undisciplined and acclaimed filmmakers worldwide share, by the way; or that he’s simply too interested in the candy-colored goblins dancing inside his own skull to the exclusion of everything else. (The movie of Burton’s I find most cloying and overwrought in its bid to draw parallels between its director and its wounded, oh-so-sensitive outsider hero-- Edward Scissorhands-- is the one many count as among his best.)

Also, the general flatness of the Victoria/Barnabas romance in Dark Shadows certainly bears the stamp of a filmmaker who finds it the least interesting element in his brew, and Heathcote, though obviously cut from the Winona Ryder cloth of giant-eyed Burton ingĂ©nues (she even looks like the director’s corpse bride), is too bland—when she seems to disappear from the movie near the end, it actually takes a while for her absence to register.

There is probably also two too many scenes between Barnabas and the modern-day Angelique, in which the vampire demands to be set free from her lingering influence—Green’s gorgeous, wild-eyed succubus makes Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest look, well, like Victoria Winters-- although we’re so glad to see Depp and Green playing off each other (more about them in a second) that they conjure a very forgiving mood.

Finally, inevitably, Dark Shadows, like many big-budget Hollywood movies that have come before it and that will certainly arrive right on schedule in its wake, ends up devolving into a special sort of mess, an effects free-for-all, once the third-act warning bell sounds off. During this big, largely nonsensical climax the movie begins to take on a whiff of panic, despite our delight in individual touches and actor moments. (We’re especially ill-prepared for a last-minute revelation involving one of the lead characters, one that makes emotional and hormonal sense but seems to come, at least to this viewer, from some hidden, little-used wing of Collinwood Manor, deeper evidence of which may be on the cutting room floor.)
But overall, and strangely, the movie’s scattershot episodic approach to its narrative, in which bits and pieces of several story notions from the original series get compacted into a two-hour Hammer-infused cocktail, ends up working in its favor as an offhanded tribute to the source material, which was nothing if not often unfocused and usually conjured on the fly, and certainly paper-thin in the budget department.


And about those glorious actor moments. Burton coaxes terrific work from Jackie Earle Haley as Loomis (“It’s October. That’s why there’s punkins.”); Michele Pfeiffer as the moody Collins family matriarch (“But, Barnabas, in your own crazed, mixed-up sort of way, you saved the family!”), though the filmmakers forget to make her character relevant in the second half; Gulliver McGrath, who sells little David Collins’ parental anguish without a trace of precociousness; Chloe Grace Moretz, who seethes memorably as the disaffected Caroline in a way that will be familiar to parents of teenaged daughters of any era; and especially Helena Bonham Carter, who does a great fright-wigged, pill- and booze-ridden evocation of Grayson Hall’s would-be immortal Dr. Julia Hoffman, who becomes seduced by the selfish possibilities in guiding Barnabas to a cure for his eternal malady (“Every year I get half as pretty and twice as drunk.”) Only Miller fails to make much of an impression, and that has everything to do with the fact that the filmmakers haven’t integrated Roger Collins very adeptly into the proceedings and nothing to do with his capability as an actor.


Of course, this is Depp’s movie, and he brings to it his characteristic, well-documented quirkiness, but also a surprising passion that serves as a built-in rejoinder to those who might be at this point suspicious of his penchant for the deliberately odd. Even after the increasingly diminished returns of repeated visits to the Captain Jack Sparrow well, I can’t think of another actor working right now (maybe Woody Harrelson) who so ably combines as Depp does the magnetic qualities of a leading man with the hunger to explore the strange nooks and crannies of character with such attention-grabbing fierceness and, paradoxically, lack of the understandable fear of looking foolish. 

Depp’s Barnabas isn’t a stunt, nor is it just another excuse to dress up in odd clothes and prosthetics for the Burtonesque fun of it. He manages to embody the tension within a character who hasn’t yet surrendered his moral imperative as a man to his supernatural compulsion to kill, in vocal, physical (observe those claw-like bangs) and spiritual tribute to Jonathan Frid, while at the same time keeping in tune with and alive to the comedic tone of Burton’s homage. His blinkered confusion over the time in which he has awakened (“A woman doctor! What an age is this!”) is far more sublime than the joke-packed trailer could ever suggest. (And it also helps that we don’t get exposed to practically all of those jokes in two and a half minutes—the movie clocks in at just under two hours.) This is a glorious performance, exhilarating in its capacity for romantic yearning and sheer silliness, which deserves to spoken of in the same breath as Depp’s Raoul Duke, his Willy Wonka and, yes, his Ed Wood.


But as much as Depp, the element that makes Dark Shadows really soar is the breathtakingly funny work delivered by Eva Green as Angelique, a witch who makes it her eternity’s mission to destroy not only Barnabas but the fortunes of the entire Collins family because of the 200-year-old romantic slight over which she is still seething. Decked out in a blonde wig that is closer to her natural hair color than the darker hue seen in films like Casino Royale and The Dreamers, Green has the luscious complexion and spectacular figure of a movie star, a femme fatale to whom most men wouldn’t mind succumbing. She also has eyes that pop out of her skull in a way that must have sent her groovy ghoulie director into paroxysms of pleasure, and a mile-wide grin that stretches so sensually in its sinister insinuations that the moniker “Sardonicus” might occasionally come to mind. Green’s must be the best, most improbably grand mouth on a comedienne since the heyday of Martha Raye, yet she’s also a classic, haunting beauty, one with, as it turns out, killer comedic instincts. She mixes supernatural sensual entitlement and erotic mystery with superbly weird and hilarious choices—at times she seems literally drunk on both her power and her desire to possess Barnabas, and at times she hits her overextended American accent (she’s French) too hard, which has the effect of a hint at Angelique’s rage being barely contained, twisted into shapes she can’t adequately express beneath the appearance of the cool, modern businesswoman she’s constructed.

Confronting Barnabas, her steely, seductive gaze widens slightly and suddenly we can witness the madness and the obsession inside-- we know she’s no longer seeing her would-be amour or anyone else who happens to be standing in front of her, but only the agonized tease of tortures and curses perpetuated yet still unfulfilled. The logistics of Angelique’s supernatural persona don’t tend to hold much water upon close examination—she’s a witch who at some point along her journey through time has somehow become, literally, a fatally beautiful mannequin—and she’s at the eye of the movie’s overwrought climactic implosion. But it’s crucially wrong, even as subject to CGI as her character eventually becomes, to proclaim that Green’s performance itself, in all its devilishly comic glory, is ultimately reduced to a special effect. Her face cracked like the most sublime eggshell, those burning eyes, the mouth twisted into a final rictus of disappointment and outrage-- those features, which remain to the end under the actress's intelligent control, tell the real story.

We tend to give plenty of credit to actors who conjure mixtures of emotion, humor, pathos and grandeur, but only if they do it in a proper, Oscar-friendly context of sweeping drama or epic biographical exploration. Dark Shadows, on the other hand, is on its gorgeously rendered surface an ostensibly inconsequential, unapologetically entertaining movie, so it may take a few decades (hopefully not centuries) for audiences to recognize the value of Green’s contribution, and Depp’s. They serve as perfect compliments to a cracked director’s latest love child, a swoony, silly, visually resplendent tribute to movies and monsters that are thankfully, like the craving that drives Barnabas Collins himself, still in his blood.


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