The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege, both of his parents are physicians. They were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, schools of that nature put an enormous amount of stress on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

True Legend (Su Qi-Er)


This armor is for the birds.

This armor is for the birds.

(2010) Martial Arts (Indomina) Vincent Zhao, Xun Zhou, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Cung Le, Xiaogang Feng, Ka-Yen Leung, Jacky Heung, Ni Yan, Will Liu, Luxia Jiang, Ze Li, Hanwen Suen, Conan Stevens, Sylvester Terkay, Matt Weise, Dominique Vandenberg, Jon Heidenreich, He Hung. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping

Vengeance is one of the uglier sides of the human spirit. It warps the soul and is a kind of madness, an obsession that can turn a good man into something evil. Those who go through life seeking vengeance are likely to dig their own graves.

Su Can (Zhao) is a skilled general who rescues a prince (Heung) of the realm from a fortress full of enemies in a mountain stronghold. In return for his bravery, Su is offered the position of governor of Hubei province; however, Su doesn’t want it. Su is more interested in perfecting his own Wu Shu and retiring from the military life. He gives instead the position to his adopted brother Yuan Lie (On), who is jealous at having lived in Su Can’s shadow most of his life.

But not all of it  When Yuan was a little boy, Su Can’s father killed Yuan’s father who had been perfecting a particularly evil form of Wu Shu called the Five Venom Fists, afterwards adopting Yuan and his sister Ying (Zhou). Su had fallen in love with Ying and married her, further driving a wedge between the two men.

Five years pass and Yuan returns home, ostensibly to reconcile. However, that’s not going to happen – his heart has grown far too twisted and evil. He murders Su’s father in a particularly brutal fashion and maims Su. Only Ying’s pleas stop Yuan from killing her husband. Instead, Yuan throws Su into a raging river, poisoned and badly injured.

Ying escapes, diving into the river after her husband and rescuing him. She takes him to the lonely mountain cottage of Dr. Yu (Yeoh), a herbalist. Su’s injuries are crippling and only through rigorous training will he be able to use his arm again. At first, Su is more interested in drinking himself blind. Not only did Yuan murder his dad but he kidnapped his son Feng (Suen) as well and Su is in no shape to rescue his own flesh and blood.

However, the Wu Shu God (Chou) takes pity on Su and along with a wise old sage (Gordon Liu) instruct him in the art of Wu Shu. It isn’t until later that Ying realizes that Su is going mad – he is training with nobody. She realizes that Su may never be recovered enough to rescue her son so she decides to go do it herself and gets captured for her trouble.

Su knows that he has no choice; he will have to set aside his demons and save his family. The showdown will be epic but it won’t end quite the way anyone expects – leaving Su broken and fighting in an arena against foreign devils. Has he hit rock bottom? And what will he lose on the way there?

Ping is best known as the action choreographer for films like The Matrix and both Kill Bill movies. He’s also a director and has done over 20 movies on his own. As you might expect, he is an accomplished director of action sequences and has a fluid visual style that’s quite pleasing. However, he is less strong with story and character, letting them take a back seat to the sometimes breathtaking fights.

And they are breathtaking. The fight at the waterfall between the Iron Twins and Su is beautiful (it ought to be; it took 15 days to shoot) and intricate, one of the best martial arts sequences you’re ever likely to see. There are several others which are similarly spectacular. Sadly, when the action stops and the talking starts, the movie grinds to a screeching halt…or screeches to a grinding halt. Choose your mixed metaphor wisely.

Ping is best known for his wire work and he augments that with some CGI sequences involving weaponry and Wu Shu wizardry. Unfortunately, like many effects sequences in Chinese films these days, the work isn’t up to par with modern standards and for the most part look kind of weak and shoddy  While I realize that practical effects aren’t always…er, practical for certain sequences, if you must use CGI at the very least make sure it doesn’t make your film look worse.

Vincent Zhao wasn’t particularly well-known in China when this was filmed – he’d mostly done television and commercial work but he does a pretty credible job here and is at the center of most of the action. Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses worldwide; even though her role here is brief, she elevates every movie she participates in and this is no exception. I could watch her chatting on her cell phone for hours and never get bored.

In fact, having Yeoh as well as the legendary Gordon Liu and the late David Carradine in one of his final roles all together in the same movie is reason enough to rent this sucker, even though they don’t appear in the same scenes at one time. Reason enough for me to seek this one out…and it should be reason enough for you to as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Yeoh, Chou, Carradine and Gordon Liu in the same movie – awesome!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No plot to speak of. CGI detracts from the quality of the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Martial arts violence as you’d expect, some of it brutal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Ping’s first film as a director since 1996.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unreported (the film made a negligible amount in the States although it’s Chinese box office is probably substantial) on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Local Legends

Beneath the Darkness


You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

(2011) Horror (Image) Dennis Quaid, Aimee Teegarden, Tony Oller, Devon Werkheiser, Brett Cullen, Stephen Lunsford, Dahlia Weingort, Conrad Gonzales, Wilbur Penn, Amber Bartlett, Sydney Barrosse, David Christopher, Gabriel Folse, Melody Chase, Cameron Banfield, Richard Dillard, Timothy Fall, Cheryl Chin, Paige Creswell. Directed by Martin Guigui

 

When someone close to us dies, we handle our grief in different ways. Some of us go a little crazy, hallucinating or turning to unhealthy ways of dealing with our grief. Some of us go a lot crazy. Some of us never recover.

Travis (Oller) is still grieving the loss of his sister a few years earlier. People look at him suspiciously because he claimed that he saw her ghost after her death. In this small Texas town that is tantamount to painting yourself blue and wearing a petunia on your head. It’s just not acceptable behavior.

He and classmates Abby (Teegarden) and Brian (Lunsford) are passing by the mortuary when they spy the silhouette of mortician Ely (Quaid), once a football hero which in a small Texas town is a big deal, dancing with a mysterious figure. Ely lives alone, his wife dead several years – so who is he dancing with?  We’ll go with what I’m sure is your first answer – a ghost. What, you thought he was dating? Not that kind of movie, bub.

So of course they report their sighting and of course nobody believe them. Who knew, right? So in true Scooby-Do fashion the kids decide to investigate the sighting themselves. Ruh roh Shaggy! That’s a bad idea and it gets one of them killed as it turns out that Ely is, well, a little unhinged.

Now Ely’s got his sights set on the two remaining Scooby gang kids and things don’t look too promising for their potential college careers. After all, they’re being chased by a maniac and nobody believes that they’re even in trouble. All the Scooby snacks in the world aren’t going to get them out of this pickle gang – until the great unmasking at the end. “Norman BATES!?!” “Yeah, and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”

All kidding aside, this is the kind of thriller that my buddies and I used to make fun of in college. A plot so hoary and ludicrous that even Ed Wood might have thought twice about using it. A mortuary that makes the Psycho house look like a Disney park. Performances from most of the cast (some of whom are much better than they show they are here) that have all the energy and passion of someone reading a molecular chemistry textbook out loud.

The saving grace is Dennis Quaid. Criminally underrated as an actor pretty much his entire career, his grin is infectious but here it’s terrifying, in fact downright diabolical. With a role like this one, all any actor can really do is just cut loose and not worry about embarrassing themselves and so Quaid does some pretty manly scenery-chewing. Is it over the top? Hell yes, but who cares? It’s at least entertaining.

WHY RENT THIS: Dennis Quaid is hyeah.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland, tired plot. Rest of cast seems to have no energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,600 on a $7M production budget; wasn’t even close to making back its costs.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Wild Girl Waltz

The Mummy (1999)


Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

(1999) Adventure (Universal) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, John Hannah, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oded Fehr, Jonathan Hyde, Erick Avari, Bernard Fox, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Patricia Velasquez. Directed by Stephen Sommers

 

Note to Hollywood filmmakers: now this is how to do monster movies in the 21st century. Something old (the setting), something new (the effects), something borrowed (the premise), something blue (a couple of racy outfits). Even 13 years later this still remains a standard.

Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is an adventurer in the tradition of Indiana Jones. He’s smart, strong, a crack shot and as it happens, one of two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Hamunaptra, the legendary (some would say mythical) Egyptian city of the dead. It’s reputed to be the resting place of the treasure of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It’s also the resting place of Im-Ho-Tep, the high priest of the dead and murderer of Pharaoh Seti II. Even back then they frowned on regicide a little; ol’ Im-Ho-Tep got the nastiest Egyptian punishment there is which is to be slowly devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles after being entombed while still alive. That definitely leaves a mark (those Egyptians could be pretty nasty when they wanted to be).

Cut to the 1920’s. After Evy Carnahan (Weisz), a sweet-natured librarian discovers a map to the legendary lost city, she enlists O’Connell, Jonathan (Hannah) her ne’er-do-well brother and a corrupt Warden (Djalili) – read designated victim – to help find the site, where the Book of Amon Ra, which contains the secrets of Egyptian magic, is also said to reside.

What they do find when they finally get there is the Book of the Dead. This awakens Im-Ho-Tep, who is mighty steamed – as you would be if you had been buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. He brings with him the ten plagues of Egypt (the ones in Exodus – check out The Ten Commandments if you aren’t up on them) and the ability to control the elements.

He wants to re-animate his dead lover (after 2,000 years, a fella’s got needs) and kidnaps the librarian to do so. From here on in, it’s a roller-coaster ride of dazzling special effects, spine-tingling thrills and daring escapes.

This is one of the best movies — in terms of sheer entertainment — that’s come down the pike since, say, Aliens or at maybe even the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. It moves at breakneck speed and visually is superb eye candy. Director Stephen Sommers took a fairly hackneyed monster movie and turned it into a franchise for Universal, which sorely needed one.

And Brendan Fraser as an action hero? Who’da thunk it, but it works. Fraser is very likable, in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart. Weisz, then at the beginning of a career that has brought her an Oscar to this point, did a good job as the plucky heroine and Hannah set the bar for the comic relief. Fehr, playing a kind of Guardian of Hamunaptra, shows some Arabic hotness for the ladies and makes a credible action hero in his own right but you’re not watching the movie for the acting. It’s all about More and Bigger and Louder, and The Mummy delivers.

While some of the scenes are a bit too intense for younger children in general, this is one fine family entertainment that you’ll want to add to your video library. particularly if you have teenagers in the house.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun and entertaining. Re-invents the classic movie monster film. Great CGI effects for their time. Weisz and Fraser make an attractive heroic couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes are a bit grisly and may be too scary for smaller kids.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and a bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Ardith Bay, the character Fehr plays, is an anagram of Death By Ra. It is also the name of the character played by Boris Karloff in the original 1932 version.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: In the original DVD release there was a  text Egyptology feature that is actually quite informative. The 2001 Ultimate Edition includes a timeline of the reiging Pharaohs of Egypt. The 2008 Deluxe Edition included a storyboard to film feature. All of these are available on the DVD version as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $415.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Outsourced

 

Kill Bill: Vol. 2


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Uma Thurman is astonished to find a white-haired Chinese master growing out of the end of her stick.

(2004) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sid Haig, Perla Haney-Jardine, Caitlin Keats, Jeannie Epper, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Stephanie L. Moore, Shana Stein. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

The first Kill Bill was an action-heavy revenge flick that sent the Bride (Thurman) after her fellow members of an elite assassination squad who had participated in murdering her groom at the altar, massacring everyone in attendance at the wedding and leaving her for dead. She is working her way up to Bill (Carradine), the leader of the squad and her former lover.

First she’s going after Budd (Madsen), aka Sidewinder, Bill’s brother and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. However, after the demises of the various members in the first film, Budd is waiting for her with a double barreled shotgun packed with rock salt. The force of the blast knocks out the Bride, whom Budd proceeds to bury alive. He offers to sell the Hattori Hanzo sword she had made in the first film to Elle Driver (Hannah) aka California Mountain Snake for a million bucks. However, Elle double crosses him and leads a deadly Black Mamba viper in the satchel with the cash, which bites Budd and finishes him off.

However, the Bride during her training with Pai Mei (G. Liu) – told in flashbacks – learned how to break wooden planks with her bare hands from short distances away (most martial artists use the full extension of their arms to break boards) and she does so, allowing her to break the planks and claw through the dirt to freedom.

More than a little hacked off she returns to the double wide where Budd shot her and finds him dead there with Elle still there gathering up her cash and the sword. The Bride gets in an epic battle with the one-eyed Elle and eventually beats her, plucking out her remaining eye and leaving her for the Mamba which is loose in the trailer.

Now it is time for her to take on her nemesis, her former lover and former employer. When she finally meets up with Bill, things won’t go as expected; she’ll be forced to confront some truths about herself and about her life and make peace with who she is before she can Kill Bill.

If anything, this is even better than the first film which was a non-stop action funfest that paid homage to nearly every genre of modern grindhouse movie imaginable, from samurai films, wu shu epics,  blaxploitation to anime. This one has a few more homages but to be honest, this is where the meat and potatoes of the storytelling lies. It is here where you get the emotional payoff that the first movie was leading up to.

Thurman is less robotic here and while she isn’t the most expressive actress ever, this is one of her better performances. Carradine, the “Kung Fu” veteran who had largely been forgotten in the 90s showing up in cameo appearances in cheesy exploitation films, gives the performance of his career here. Mainly an off-screen presence in the first film, he shows both the tender and murderous sides of his character, and demonstrates the cunning that  a hunter of human beings would have. The conversation between him and his former lover that makes up most of the end of the film is really one of the most compelling confrontations in cinematic history – and there really isn’t a whole lot of action going for it, but what action there is pays off big time.

The two films do stand alone pretty well individually, but really to get the maximum effectiveness from Vol. 2 you have to at least have some knowledge from Vol. 1. Those who haven’t seen the first film at all may be a little bit lost throughout the film and certainly the emotional wallop of the last scenes won’t be as intense.

Although Tarantino has gone on to direct some amazing films both before this and after it, to my way of thinking this remains his magnum opus and maybe the masterpiece that will always define his career. What distinguishes him here is that while he has always been a fan of movies first and foremost, he never loses sight of the power of good storytelling. In other words, he doesn’t just mimic a few genres for film geek cred; he understands what makes those genres work and links them together with a story of epic grandeur, one that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman wronged is nobody you want to mess with.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most amazing action films of all time. Carradine gives a career-reviving performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You really need to at least be familiar with Vol. 1 in order to appreciate this.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with the first volume, there is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language; there’s also a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two volumes were always meant to be seen as one film. However, it has only been screened as such just twice – at Cannes and then in 2010

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a performance from the movie’s premiere by Chingon, the band fronted by director Robert Rodriguez (who contributed some music for the film).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $152.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Dark Shadows


Dark Shadows

You’d be grinning too if you had a sex scene with Johnny Depp that ended up trashing a set.

(2012) Gothic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley, Alice Cooper. Directed by Tim Burton

 

Sometimes without meaning to we cause harm to people. We never know exactly who we’ve created an enemy of, or what they’re capable of doing though even if we’re innocent of any real wrongdoing.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) was living the high life, 18th century style. His family owns a wildly successful fishing fleet in Maine; the town built around their enterprise, Collinsport, is thriving; they’ve built an extravagant mansion overlooking the town and the Atlantic that would be the equivalent of a castle. And Barnabas is deeply in love with Josette duPres (Heathcote).

This is bad news to Angelique Bouchard (Green). She and the handsome Barnabas had a fling which meant much more to her than it did to him. She was a maid, he the master of the house; a relationship between them would not be appropriate if it were even possible. Scorned, Angelique resolves to get even and since she happens to be a rather powerful witch, that’s even worse news for Josette. Angelique casts a spell on her, causing her to throw herself off a cliff into the sea despite Barnabas’ desperate attempts to save her. Heartbroken, he throws himself off the same cliff but fails to die. You see, he’s been cursed as well – to become a vampire, a hideous creature of the night.

The implacable Angelique lets the good citizens of Collinsport know they have a monster in their midst and Barnabas is dragged out into a remote field where he is chained up and buried alive. There he remains, deep in the ground in the woods far outside of town.

That is, until he is dug up some 200 years later by contractor. It is now 1972 and two centuries without a meal can make one…peckish as the workers find out to their dismay. He longs to find his estate and get his bearings. When he gets there, he is overjoyed to find that the family still survives (although it’s never explained quite how, since he apparently was the only son – perhaps some other Collins’ emigrated from England to take over the family business). However, they are definitely down at heel. Their fishing business is a shadow of its former self. The mansion is crumbling and what was once a vast army of servants is down to two – the elderly Mrs. Johnson (Shirley) and the booze-addled Willie Loomis (Haley) who does most of the heavy lifting.

The family is down to four members – matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), widowed mother of rebellious teen Carolyn (Moretz). Her brother Roger Collins (Miller) who is also a widower and a womanizer, not to mention somewhat useless. The last is his son David (McGrath) who talks to and sees his dead mother. This tendency to dwell on his late mother has alarmed Elizabeth who has opened her penurious pursestrings and hired Julia Hoffman (Carter), a psychiatrist who seems more interested in drinking and smoking than therapy and Victoria Winters (Heathcote), a governess who bears a remarkable resemblance to Josette.

They welcome Barnabas with mostly open arms although Elizabeth alone is aware that Barnabas is that Barnabas rather than a distant English relation (the cover story they use for Barnabas’ unusual and sudden appearance). Elizabeth wants to regain the family name and glory and she knows that his keen business acumen can only help (it doesn’t hurt that as a vampire he can use his mind to control others to do his will). However, they have a long ways to go to catch up with Angel Bay, the corporate entity that has taken over the fishing business in Collinsport. However, Barnabas is dismayed to find out that at the head of Angel Bay is an old nemesis (emphasis on the old) – Angelique (going by Angie these days) who hasn’t aged a day. Like as not, their old quarrel is going to resurface and there’s going to be fall-out and only one of them will be left standing.

On the surface this seems like a perfect fit – Burton, one of the quirkiest directors in Hollywood but one who knows how to tell a good story and the iconic gothic soap opera from the 60s and 70s. He has chosen to go the cheeseball route, not just by setting the movie (mostly) in the 70s but by changing its original dark, gothic tone to one that is more comedic. In all honesty it doesn’t work as well as I would have hoped.

It’s not Depp’s fault. He takes the late Jonathan Frid’s (who played Barnabas in the series) mannered, courtly vampire and takes that to the extreme, playing up the fish out of water angle a great deal more. In the original, Barnabas seemed to adjust much more quickly and readily to his new time. Frid was a sex symbol in his time albeit not to the same degree Depp is now. Depp’s Barnabas seems sexier more by accident than by artifice; indeed, the original Barnabas was far more evil and dangerous than Depp who is almost apologetic when he feeds. In fact, Frid seems to revel in his undead status more than Depp who would just as soon be rid of his curse.

The supporting roles vary wildly. Pfeiffer is always magnificent and although she seems a bit young to play the matron, she pulls it off here well. Green is the most impressive; with her carefree grin, she sees to be having the most fun of everybody (she does get to have a hot and somewhat violent sex scene with Depp so I suppose she comes by her smile honestly) and it translates into making her character more attractive to audiences. She may be vindictive and cruel but she’s a woman scorned – they’re supposed to be vindictive and cruel.

Personally I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity there. She was supposed to be desperately in love with Barnabas despite his rejection, but as he noted she saw him as more of a possession than a partner. I think if she had shown real love towards Barnabas it would have been much more poignant, but then it might have ruined the comic tone which I also think may have been a misstep – the film rarely achieves more than being amusing which is not what you want in a summer comedy.

The movie looks impressive with Collinswood being an amazing set, full of nautical touches that are gratifying in their detail and fully understandable given the family’s source of income. However, as lavish as the film looks and as well as Green and Depp do, it doesn’t hide the fact that there isn’t really a whole lot of passion displayed by the filmmakers; at least, I never feel inspired by the movie to do much more than smile occasionally. The movie felt to me almost workmanlike which is a shame because I had high hopes for it. Despite a lot of nice little touches it doesn’t add up to a satisfying film overall; but those touches are enough for me to recommend it with the caveat that it isn’t going to remain in your memory as long as the original series did.

REASONS TO GO: Depp inhabits his role well. Green has fun with her part. Nicely Gothic sets.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the funniest bits are in the trailer. Purists will bemoan the comedic tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a fairly bizarre sex scene, some drug use and smoking and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To prepare for his role as Barnabas, Depp subsisted on a diet of green tea and low-sugar fruits in order to slim down to 140 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews have been mixed although leaning more towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires Suck

DARK SHADOWS LOVERS: Original series cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby and Jonathan Frid (in his last onscreen role before his death earlier this year) have cameos as guests at a party at Collinswood.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Pirates! Band of Misfits

After.Life


After.Life

Who knew the dead could be so hot?

(2009) Horror (Anchor Bay) Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Josh Charles, Chandler Canterbury, Celia Watson, Luz Ramos, Rosemary Murphy, Malachy McCourt, Shuler Hensley, Alice Drummond, Sam Kressner, Erin Ward. Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Dead is dead, or so conventional wisdom would have it. Once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, the party’s over. What happens then is highly up to speculation.

Anna Taylor (Ricci) is a beautiful young teacher who has the world opening up to her on the horizon. Her boyfriend Paul (Long) is about to propose when they go out to dinner but they get into an argument. Anna storms out of the restaurant and drives off, angry and emotional, the rain falling in sheets. Inevitably, she gets into a nasty accident.

When she wakes up, she’s in the morgue, attended to by Deacon (Neeson) who informs her that she’s dead. Deacon has the special gift of being able to communicate with the dead under his care, able to help transition them from this life to the afterlife. Anna finds this difficult to accept. Deacon counters that most of the newly dead find their new situation hard to accept. They always whine that they have so much left to do, so much unfinished business.

Anna feels alive though and nothing Deacon can say or do will dissuade her. She wants to call her  boyfriend to rescue her from this maniac keeping her against her will in this terrible place; but from his point of view he’s trying to help her accept her fate and move on to her final rest. But is she alive as she asserts that she is, or dead as Deacon maintains that she is?

This is an intriguing concept that has a “Twilight Zone”-esque quality to it. First-time director Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t always know what to do with it. Her job, as I see it, is to keep audiences off-balance without giving away the answer to the question “is she or isn’t she” and for the most part, she succeeds. Occasionally though she stumbles, sometimes failing to maintain the inner logic of the situation. Of course, that’s more the fault of the script than the direction but as she also co-wrote the script, she doesn’t really have that out.

Ricci is lustrous here, spending a good chunk of the movie nude (and also a bluish shade which kind of increases the allure) and her trademark gothic waif look is perfect for the role. Her physical charms notwithstanding, she also gives the part a certain amount of emotional wallop, going through stages of grief (denial, anger, fear) while never becoming shrill.

She has some great chemistry with Neeson, who is such a great actor that even a role like this which doesn’t really push him all that much he still manages to imbue with his charisma and invite the audience to get invested. The movie’s main selling point is to make it ambiguous as to whether Deacon is a kindly guide or an evil monster. Neeson pulls it off so that either option is possible.

I’ve mentioned “The Twilight Zone” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but the movie here, rather than paying homage to the show tries to emulate it a bit too much. There is not so much a Rod Serling influence rather than an attempt to bring him back from the dead and the corpse doesn’t smell too good to be honest.

That aside, the concept is good and the acting solid enough so that it gets a pass for all its flaws. Sometimes critics such as myself just have to get past what a movie could have been and accept it for  what it is. No doubt this could have been a whole lot better – but it is as is good enough for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Spooky and atmospheric. Ricci and Neeson have some great exchanges.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script should be more ambiguous and let the audience figure out whether or not Anna is dead. Too much Rod Serling here.

FAMILY VALUES: The whole theme is pretty disturbing; there’s also some nudity and sexuality as well as a buttload of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prop knife used by Ricci during the film is the same one Glenn Close used in Fatal Attraction.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood this lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ides of March