Sunday, May 21, 2017


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?



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.



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.


Saturday, May 13, 2017


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

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)



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.


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.


Saturday, May 06, 2017


Summer is upon us. That is, summer as defined by movie studios which, in the 40 years since Star Wars was released, on May 25, 1977, have valiantly tried to stretch the boundaries of summer, content-wise, from the traditional June-July-August definition to include the other nine months of the year as well. (Mission pretty much accomplished, gentlemen. Thank you for your efforts.) As far as the actual summer movie season, it’s now more or less accepted that everything starts on the first weekend of May, and so it most certainly is this year. 

In case you hadn’t heard, a modest little picture called Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 debuts this weekend at an art house near you, and everyone you know, including you, have probably already bought advance tickets to see it. Me, I’m less similarly inclined. Despite my raised expectations from reviews and audience reports, I found the first GOTG exhausting and not just a little too self-satisfied. I’m not the biggest fan of Chris Pratt either-- there seem to be quotation marks around almost everything he does. And when I scanned the generally positive reviews of GOTGV2 which seemed to reflect the writers having been so charmed by it (if not as completely as they were by the first one), the same warning flags started flying for me. If I’m to believe the indicators coming from some of my favorite film critics, two of the primary reasons I’d want to see GOTGV2, Karen Gillan and Elizabeth Debecki, come cloaked in enough CGI-gilded costumery that the actresses themselves might as well be computer-generated. And I'd be willing to bet that I would eventually be driven to violence over having to endure 2.5 hours of flashy, noisy explosions, impenetrable, universe-expanding "story," Chris Pratt endlessly smirking, and a menagerie of cute characters dancing to a knowing soundtrack of '70s hits I never much liked in the first place.

No, called me close-minded if you must, but I’m letting experience and, yes, preconceptions rule the weekend this time and saving myself the $15+ (plus parking, plus popcorn, plus post-picture Pepto-Bismol) and the aggravation over diving in with the swarm of multiplex zombies fighting to get seats for a movie I’m not even slightly interested in seeing. I’ll leave that fun to my daughters who, if they ever get out of bed on this charmingly gloomy Saturday in Glendale, California, plan to head out to the cinema and, with my blessing, see it by themselves.

So, if not the Adventures of Baby Groot and Star-Lord and Zamora and Drax and Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Snorlax and Cap’n Crunch and Christ knows who else, what exactly will there be to see during the coming months of summer? Well, a somewhat more than perfunctory glance through the Los Angeles Times  Calendar section’s recent Summer Movie Sneaks spectacular revealed to these eyes exactly 13 movies, one of which I’ve already seen, that piqued my initial interest. (I’d like to hope that further investigation might reveal more, but who knows?)

Strangely enough, none of those 13 were called Alien: Covenant (though I’ll admit curiosity here), Baywatch, Cars 3, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (beware the Depp!), Transformers: The Last Knight, War of the Planet of the Apes or, naturally, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Budgetary bravado aside, with a lineup like that, I think Hollywood is right to be worried about the possibility of a serious bout of summer sequel and franchise fatigue

No, I found some other pictures in which to invest some slim hope of a few worthwhile hours at the movies this summer, and a couple of them will seem like odd choices, given my sour disposition re the current crop of tentpoles being trotted out over the next four months. The sliver of hope I have invested in the prospects of a fun summer movie-going season rest squarely on the following 13 pictures, some of which may be coming to a theater near you sometime soon.

BABY DRIVER Writer-director Edgar Wright’s high-octane, soundtrack-driven action comedy, a riff on action pictures like The Driver and Drive which looks to harmonize with the sensibility of his wonderful Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End). But will Simon and Garfunkel make it onto Wright’s playlist? (June 28)

THE BEGUILED The most intriguing remake of the summer finds writer-director Sofia Coppola revisiting the Southern gothic vibe of the 1971 Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood drama about a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) at first tended to and then at the mercy of the denizens of a mysterious girls’ school headed by a demented headmistress (Nicole Kidman). (June 30)

BUSTER’S MAL HEART Rami Malek stars in Sarah Adina Smith’s eerie puzzler about a hotel night manager whose encounter with a strange conspiracy theorist’s warnings of an upcoming event called the Inversion may have also triggered an apocalypse of a more interior variety. This is a hushed, genuinely disquieting thriller that is well worth taking a chance on when you can’t get GOTGV2 tickets. (Now playing)

DESPICABLE ME 3 Yeah, Minions was an almost complete bummer, but the Gru-centric first two movies flirted with classic status (especially the emotionally resonant first chapter), so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that the third time around at least some of that original, slightly acidic charm will be retained. (June 30)

DETROIT Kathryn Bigelow’s latest foray into sociopolitical docudrama, this one centered on the Algiers Motel incident, a police raid which occurred during Detroit’s 12th Street riot in 1967 and resulted an even more violent and unprecedented citizen uprising. This one stars John Boyega, Anthony Mackie and John Krasinski. (August 4)

DUNKIRK Eight minutes of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming WWII epic, shown before Rogue One in IMAX last Christmas, were enough to make me want to dump the Star Wars picture right then and there and see the remaining 112 of Dunkirk. This might be the great antidote to a summer bloated with franchise-based timidity and comic-book escapism. (July 21)

A GHOST STORY Writer-director David Lowery retreats from mystical forests (Pete’s Dragon) and back toward the more Malick-infused mysticism of his previous Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in a story of a ghostly visitation from a deceased father trying to reconnect to the life he’s left behind. Lowery brings back ATBS stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara alongside a suitably haunted cast of unfamiliar faces. (July 7)

I, DANIEL BLAKE Ken Loach’s 2016 Cannes sensation follows the trials and tribulations of a 59-year-old carpenter (Dave Johns) debilitated by a heart attack who finds himself forced to navigate through a tangled and inefficient health care system. The movie’s grim subject is reportedly leavened by Loach’s usual humanity, and it made it onto several 10-best lists last year, leading to this summer’s American release. (It gets a limited spin here starting June 17.)

IT COMES AT NIGHT Krisha, the debut film by Trey Edward Shults, was a searing family psychological drama that at times played with the intensity of a horror film. So this thriller, in which a family’s creeping paranoia and mistrust come to a boil as a mysterious force outside their increasingly unstable home moves ever closer, sounds like a natural extension. Starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough. (June 9)

SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY This documentary brings together scores (sorry) of the industry’s upper-echelon film composers for an overview of the development of musical scores in motion pictures as well as a look inside the creative challenges and intense secrecy within the community of film composers. Even on your Netflix queue, this one looks to be intriguing and certainly worth a listen. (June 16)

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING Okay, okay, so even I can’t resist the MCU when it comes to the third refashioning of this greatest of all comic book heroes. The taste we got in Captain America: Civil Wars of what Tom Holland will bring to the Peter Parker Party was irresistible, and I am not about to complain about the upgrade given to Aunt May in the personage of Marisa Tomei. (July 7)

WIND RIVER From Taylor Sheridan, the writer responsible for Sicario and Hell or High Water. Sheridan directs this one, the third in his self-proclaimed trilogy of the modern American frontier, featuring Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner and Jon Bernthal in a story about the FBI investigation of a murder on a Native American reservation. It doesn’t come out until August, but can I buy a ticket now? (August 4)

WONDER WOMAN To my mind, the last chance for DC Comics Entertainment to salvage something resembling entertainment value from their dour, self-serious attempts to keep up with the Marvels rests on the shoulders of filmmaker Patty Jenkins who, from the looks of the trailer at least, might be able to locate the humor that has gone missing from the DC superhero formula since the advent of Zach Snyder. Gal Gadot, as the titular Amazonian, heads a hell of a cast which includes David Thewlis, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Ewan Bremner, Chris Pine and Danny Huston. (June 2)

THE EMOJI MOVIE I’m kidding, I’m kidding… (July 28)

Of course, if summer is upon us, then so is drive-in season, and to get you in the mood for piling in the car for a movie here’s a taste of my assessment of the drive-in movie movie, Rod Amateau’s curiously titled Drive-In (1976):

“(A)s a portrait of what attending a drive-in could feel like (just replace your own scenarios for the cockamamie hijinks the movie itself supplies), as well as a glimpse (however brief) into the inner workings of a drive-in, from the snack bar to the box office to the projection booth, it has no peer. Drive-In is valuable simply because it exists, regardless of the degree to which it succeeds as entertainment, as a visual record of a form of movie exhibition that just doesn’t exist anymore, even though the drive-in itself in 2011 is far from extinct… I could almost smell the butter and grilling hot dogs during the opening montage that details the readying of the operation to open for the night, scored to that marvelously backward-glancing ode to family values on the silver screen, the Statler Brothers’ "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?" (“Tex Ritter's gone, and Disney's dead, and the screen is filled with sex”); and a glimpse of the projectionist inserting a fresh carbon-arc rod into the projector lamp housing made me gasp with nostalgic pleasure for all those dimly-lit presentations of the past… sometimes seen, and just barely, as if projected by a high-powered flashlight.” (Read the whole piece here.)

And really, of all the movies discussed above, one of the best summer movies, one that embodies the spirit of all those great (and not-so-great) exploitation pictures one might have seen at a drive-in like Rod Amateau’s in the ‘70s, came out at the tail end of the summer of 2010—Piranha 3-D, the spirited, nasty and extremely gory remake of Joe Dante’s equally spirited 1978 Jaws knockoff. I don’t have a 3D TV, so I can experience the full dimension of its stereoscopic wonders anymore, but they manage to get conveyed adequately enough even on a flat screen. Here’s a taste of my enthusiastic review:

Piranha 3D is a swiftly-paced strain of B-movie exploitation that craftily employs 3D in service of an orgiastic explosion of nubile, oiled-up boob jobs and drunken behavior doubling as a very bloody dinner for a nasty school of meat-eating fish. The hungry schools are set loose on a bustling resort town (Lake Havasu standing in for fictional Lake Victoria) when an earthquake opens a fissure under the lake that connects it to a prehistoric piranha breeding ground. And the movie doesn’t waste much time plating these gill-laden Tasmanian Devils their first meal – a grizzled old fisherman named Matt, played by Richard Dreyfuss (!!), who quickly gets stripped to the bone and whets the beasties’ appetite for more gristle and gore… Aja and his screenwriters, Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stollberg, take perhaps a bit too much time setting up the main course, but ultimately the wait pays off.  They prove astute at imagining all the different ways 3D can be employed to hurl various items at the audience, some more appreciated that others. There’s enough bikini-busting, silicone-enhanced breasts comin’ at ya in Piranha 3D that each ticket purchased ought to come with an application to the nearest zeppelin traffic controller school, and a surprise comic puking scene finds the audience with just the right perspective to encourage lap-checking for fallout afterward. Aja also stages a hilarious underwater girl-on-girl ballet/make-out session scored to Delibes’s “Flower Duet”… that is as hilarious and brashly up front about its intentions as anything Russ Meyer ever put on film." (You can read the entirety of the review here.)

That’s about it. If you’re not ready for summer, or summer movies by now, well, then off to the latest chapters in the Optimus Prime and Captain Jack Sparrow sagas with you. There’s nothing more I can do. If you need me, I’ll be in my basement, my Blu-ray player on an endless loop of Piranha 3D. Call me when that Dunkirk picture comes out, will ya?