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

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Blue Valentine


Blue Valentine

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a painful tune.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Ryan Gosling, Michele Williams, Mike Vogel, John Doman, Maryann Plunkett, Faith Wladyka, Marshall Johnson, Jen Jones, James Benatti, Barbara Troy, Carey Westbrook, Ben Shenkman, Eileen Rosen, Enid Graham, Samii Ryan. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

I have read that it is seldom certain when love begins but it is always obvious when love ends. It isn’t always an easy explanation; it’s not always that one cheats on the other, or one partner is abusive. Sometimes, what was right to begin with just stops being that way.

Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) have been together for six years after running into one another at the retirement home where Cindy’s grandmother lived and where Dean was moving a new resident in (he worked at the time for a moving company, although he’s a housepainter now). Their relationship is in its death throes; while they have a daughter Frankie (Wladyka) that both are terribly devoted to, they can barely tolerate the presence of the other. Cindy can hardly mask her revulsion whenever her husband touches her or initiates anything sexual; Dean for the most part is frustrated and can’t understand why Cindy’s feelings have changed so much towards him.

As with most things, to understand the present one must first understand their past and we are introduced to Dean and Cindy, via flashback, at the beginning of their relationship. They are younger, full of energy and passion, barely able to contain their desire for one another, romantic in a goofy and endearing way.

How, then did they get from starry-eyed lovers to disillusioned couple? From the dewy eyes of youth to receding hairlines? Well, to paraphrase a popular motivational quote, aging is inevitable but growth is optional.

The fact is that Dean reached the nadir of his life’s ambition when he married Cindy; she didn’t realize how true that was because he was happy and didn’t want things to change whereas she was growing, reaching for more and not accompanied by her husband. His ambition had already been achieved and he didn’t particularly care if things got better because to his mind they couldn’t.

This passion project for Cianfrance took almost a decade to get to the screen and it was worth the wait. Cianfrance was prescient (or fortunate) enough to cast two of the best young actors in Hollywood in the leading roles, and they both delivered searing performances, particularly Williams who would receive a 2011 Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance.

The nuances here are what make the movie worth seeking out. This is not a pair of actors reacting to a contrived situation; this is a couple dealing with real world issues that are all too common; one half has grown and the other hasn’t. This is a sadly regular happening that is one of the main causes of the high divorce rate. People tend to mature at different rates and often enough one leaves the other behind. We only marry someone at a specific moment in time; that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll both remain on the same page until death do us part.

Williams is becoming a major star; she delivers amazing performances in nearly every movie she’s a part of, although she has yet to become a big name. That’s mainly because she hasn’t yet headlined a big box office favorite but that’s just a matter of time. Here she shows Cindy at two stages in her life; in college where she looks forward to medical school and a career in medicine, the future stretching out before her like a brightly-colored ribbon inviting her to a bright tomorrow. The second is approaching 30, working as a nurse in a fertility clinic, a loveless wife and unenthusiastic mother. She makes both parts organic to the character and both work. It’s an amazing accomplishment and could only be pulled off by an actress of the first order.

Gosling is an intense actor, having pulled off Oscar-nominated turns in such films as Half Nelson and appearances in critically acclaimed fare as Drive. He has a role that is a bit more clearly defined than Ms. Williams does but makes it unique and his. This is a role that could easily have been botched into cliché and to his credit, Gosling chooses to make the role less lovable, less relatable. He doesn’t make it easy to like Dean, but we can understand him insofar as we can understand anyone. He’s a cypher but not a complete one.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch and you should know that before watching it. This is not to be watched as background noise or while multi-tasking; it requires – demands – your complete attention and at least as much thought as you can muster. It is pretty depressing for the most part – this isn’t about how love grows but about how it dies. That can be rather unsettling to watch, particularly if you’re in or have recently been in a similar situation.

Realism aside, this is a strong look at how relationships can just dissolve – not due to anything willful on the part of one party or both, but just because that was the way it was always going to evolve. In some ways it’s painful to watch, like seeing a favored pet in pain, but there is something to be learned from it so it is a worthwhile experience.

WHY RENT THIS: Gosling and Williams are two of the most impressive young actors in Hollywood today. Terrific structure and framing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hard to watch at times; can be gloomy and depressing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are an awful lot of swear words here as well as some very graphic sexual content. There is also a depiction of spousal abuse that isn’t for the faint of heart.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in which the couple meet and fall in love were filmed first; Gosling and Williams were kept apart so that the sense of them meeting for the first time could be preserved. After those scenes were completed, Gosling, Williams and occasionally Wladyka lived together for a month before filming the dissolution scenes during which time they practiced picking fights with each other.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a home video recorded of the three actors during the hiatus between the filming of the falling in love and falling apart sections of the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on a $1M production budget; the movie can be termed a financial success.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Raven (2012)

Righteous Kill


Righteous Kill

This is what happen to screenwriters who deliver subpar scripts to De Niro and Pacino.

(2008) Police Drama (Overture) Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, 50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Trilby Glover, Melissa Leo, Alan Rosenberg, Rob Dyrdek. Directed by Jon Avnet

It takes a special kind of person to be a police officer. The temptation of corruption is always there, plus there’s the endless string of disappointment and frustration as felon after felon that you’ve worked hard to convict gets let off on technicalities or under the auspices of a sympathetic judge.

Turk Cowan (De Niro) and Rooster Fisk (Pacino) are New York City Police Department detectives. They make a pretty good team; Rooster is the brains, Turk is the brawn. They are pretty well regarded by their peers, although there are some whispers that once upon a time Turk manufactured some evidence to put a killer away.

Well, that part is true, and it might be that he’s up to his old tricks again. Guilty parties who had escaped justice are turning up dead with the same bad poetry left with the bodies that Turk had left previously. Nobody is really mourning the bad guys, but the cops know that if one of their own falls under suspicion, they all are under suspicion and so Rooster knows he must go about protecting his partner by finding the real killer.

This is standard cop show plotting, not something you’d put on the plates of two of the most decorated actors in history, but here it is. Of course, Pacino and De Niro could elevate anything put before them; heck, you cast Pacino as Bella Swan and De Niro as Edward, you could even make the Twilight series more interesting. Okay, maybe not.

But the two of them need to be at the top of their game, right? Not here they’re not. Pacino operates barely above a whisper most of the time, sort of like Michael Corleone having a real bad sore throat. De Niro also seems oddly dispirited, like his mind was elsewhere. Maybe Jake LaMotta took one too many to the head.

Jon Avnet also has better films than this one on his resume. There just seems to be a feeling of punching a time clock here. This is a pretty impressive cast when you look at it on paper; it seems almost unheard of that Donnie Wahlberg would give the most memorable performance out of all of them, but there you have it. Wahlberg, as a fellow detective, is the most believable and the most intense. If everyone had given the kind of energy to their performance that Wahlberg did, this movie would have been a whole different story.

But when you give Carla Gugino a role which is basically all about having rough sex with De Niro (who ironically enough played her father in A Boy’s Life), it’s a waste of a terrific actress, one who doesn’t get enough work as it is. It’s not that Gugino isn’t sexy or kinky enough; it’s just you need to give her more to work with than just her sexuality. Take that away from the role and you have a television medical examiner part that could be done by any actress who can pronounce the jargon.

When you get a team up of De Niro and Pacino, you set expectations extremely high. The two have only had essentially six minutes of screen time together prior to this movie which, to be fair, gives them an awful lot of screen time together. The problem is that you wonder why they cast these two in roles that any halfway decent actor could do, and you get the feeling that this was simply stunt casting that the two bought into for the paycheck. Not that they shouldn’t get paid – after all, they’ve contributed some of the most memorable movie moments of the past twenty years – but Righteous Kill is very much like seeing a match race between Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, only to see them both coast around the track.

WHY RENT THIS: A case can be made for Pacino and De Niro to be the two greatest actors to appear in American films, and seeing them together is a big treat.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rest of the movie, particularly the script, doesn’t fit the prestige of the two leads.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most police dramas there’s plenty of violence and bad language, but in this one there’s some kinky sexuality, as well as a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pacino and De Niro have appeared in three movies together; in the first Godfather Part II, they both played gangsters. In the second, Heat, one played a gangster and one played a cop and in this one, both play cops.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the temptations of police work, the kind of personalities attracted to the job and real life cases of corruption and brutality.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.4M on a $60M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eagle Eye