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Column Fri May 11 2012

Dark Shadows, Sound of My Voice & God Bless America

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Dark Shadows

To talk about my personal history with the Dark Shadows source material seems slightly pointless even to me, but let me see if I can bring it around to the subject at hand, which is director Tim Burton's more comedic approach to the televised story of Barnabas Collins, a New England vampire protecting his family (more like his descendants) while fending off those who would do them harm. I'm pretty sure I've seen every episode, having watched the nightly reruns that aired in the city in which I grew up. It wasn't until years later that I understood that "Dark Shadows" was a soap opera shot live on tape, thus the reels of mistakes that humorously plagued the show.

But the original Barnabas, Johathan Frid (who passed away last month), remains one of my all-time favorite vampires, with his buttoned-down manners and fierce devotion to old-fashioned morals and sensibilities. And the best thing star Johnny Depp does with his revamped portrayal of Barnabas is to capture this reserved side to the elder Collins and put him in direct conflict with the times (in this case, the early 1970s).

I refused to get hung up on what Depp, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) lifted from the "Dark Shadows" television series and what they didn't. If the film is strong, I don't care if they fail to lift a single things from the series. But Dark Shadows, the movie, reveals some truly disappointing things about the world of Tim Burton, who has taken his outsider, freakshow approach to filmmaking and traded it in for a family-friendly, cliche gothic, unfunny, not scary, and patently uninspired movie, with a smattering of workable elements sprinkled sparingly throughout, most of which comes from the still-serviceable talent well of Johnny Depp.

Depp still has the sometimes uncanny ability to find the heart of even the most bizarre and damaged creatures, and breathe just enough life and spirit into them to make us want them to win. He has created a look that would be suspicious in any century, with pale white skin that practically glows in the dark, long fingernails, and a haircut that looks like it was styled in an oil slick. But Depp pierces through the old-school styles (acting and clothing), he favors to give us an often-moving performance as Barnabas, a vampire not just man out of time, but still in love with a woman who has been dead for more than 200 years.

Most of his troubles stem from his brief fling in olden times with Angelique (Eva Green), a servant at his beloved family home Collinwood, who is rejected by Barnabas in favor of the captivating Josette (Bella Heathcote), who later jumps off a cliff into the sea under a spell conjured by Angelique, who happens to be a witch. The jilted woman manages to transform Barnabas into a vampire and bury him in a coffin for a couple of centuries. Up to this point in the story, the film is told with the same amount of reverence that the TV show existed, and I wasn't instantly against the idea of having it leap into the '70s and go for some obvious jokes. Burton has made several wonderful films about outsiders attempting to fit in/clashing with the world around them, all the way from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood and Batman. In fact, they're his best works.

The trouble with Dark Shadows is that Burton assembles this magnificent supporting cast and does almost nothing interesting with them, and this is a problem that has plagued so many of his recent works, especially the cash cow Alice In Wonderland. But the bigger problem with Burton's more recent works is that he's recycling some of his "weird-guy" tricks, and every line in the movie is delivered to the third balcony, complete with full volume and sweeping gestures. A ridiculous "sex" scene between Depp and Green is more high-wire act than anything remotely erotic or even titillating.

I will admit, I found Michelle Pfeiffer's take on family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard mildly captivating, but that's more because he continues to have a magnetism about her that will likely never go away. Of course a radish would look dynamic next to the deadly overplayed roles played by the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Jonny Lee Miller and Jackie Earle Haley. Fairing slightly better is Chloe Grace Moretz as Elizabeth's mopey teen daughter Carolyn. Toss in a couple of throwaway cameos by the likes of Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper, and you've got yourself a gigantic mess.

I'm not even knocking the look of the film, which actually borders on breathtaking every so often. Burton knows how to put a shot together, and he certainly excels at allowing Depp the space to mold whatever character he's playing and add eccentricities where needed. But Burton has lost his way at actually crafting the gloriously dark and sometimes sinister stories he used to do so well, and that has been maddeningly apparent in his last few movies. I'm not quite ready to give up on him, because I have a sneaking suspicion that his next film, the animated redeux of one of his earliest works, Franenweenie, is going to be a blast. But Dark Shadows is a muddled, confused work by a one-time mad genius maybe needs to go off his meds when he's working.

Sound of My Voice

I first saw Sound of My Voice more than a year ago at the S 2011 XSW Film Festival and was so taken with it that I saw it again recently just to make sure I remembered it right. Turns out it's better than I'd remembered. One of the more weirdly polarizing films of last year was a little low-budget science fiction parable called Another Earth, starring and co-written by newcomer Brit Marling and directed and co-written by Mike Cahill. If you enjoyed that film, consider Sound of My Voice a companion film also starring and co-written by Marling (this time directed and co-written by Zal Batmanglij). The film isn't a companion piece just because Marling is involved. It's more about the tone and idea that this is science fiction without any of the trappings of modern-day sci-fi movies.

Whereas Another Earth was about a parallel earth parking itself off the coast of our planet, Voice deals with a woman named Maggie (Marling) who claims to be from the not-to-distant future and has traveled back in time to help a small group of humans learn to prepare for the changes that are coming. Eating healthy, purging oneself of personal anxiety, and taking part in certain rituals seem to be part of her teachings, and while she certain spins a sometimes scary yarn about what is to come, the filmmakers always leave the option open that she might be a either crazy or a con artist leading a type of seemingly harmless cult.

The actual protagonists of the movie are Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius), a couple who also are documentary filmmakers eager to sneak cameras into the group's secret location and capture the behaviors of the cult and its sickly leader (she needs oxygen nearly all the time and seems very fragile). I love the very California feel of Sound of My Voice, the way the film metaphorically captures the way people from all over the world congregate to this land of dreams and immediately attempt to connect with other people and desperately form a community. The film also has big ideas about the nature of faith, and it questions the reasons Peter begins to slip under Maggie's spell.

But once again, as I was with Another Earth, I was pulled into this movie due in large part to both the strong, thought-provoking writing and the naturalistic, utterly unique style of Marling's performance. Yes, she's a beautiful woman, but that isn't what I'm talking about. There's an intelligence, fragility and vulnerability to her acting that I haven't really seen in an American actress in recent years. Maggie has the added bonus of being a big threatening, manipulative and contradictory at times, and I was hypnotized watching her draw in her followers and occasionally, ruthlessly spit some of them out if they question her.

In the end, whether or not Maggie is from the future isn't really the point of the film (although I think a very clear answer is given on that question). Everyone in the movie is attempting to fill a void and repair some part of their damaged soul, and the process is interesting and mesmerizing. I'm excited as hell that Marling and Batmanglij have just finished shooing their second film together, The East, and that Marling has been cast in an array of movies by other filmmakers coming out this year. Another Earth and Sound of My Voice would make a great double feature for audiences actually interesting in continuing the conversation after the film has stopped running. I kind of live to see movies like that, and hopefully you do too. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

God Bless America

As far as I'm concerned, as a director of feature films, Bobcat Goldthwait is 4-for-4 (Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie, World's Greatest Dad). His latest work, God Bless America, is by far his angriest — taking pages from Network and Falling Down and then making them darkly funny. Through his lead character Frank (Joel Murray), Goldthwait rants eloquently about everything from how sickening and worthless reality TV stars are to what true assholes people are who steal your parking space. Frank targets bigots, homophobes, idiots and flat-out mean people are does what we all wish we could do: he shoots them in the head.

Frank doesn't start out a killer. He loses his wife, his job, and is diagnosed with fatal condition that drives him to attempt suicide. But at the last minute, he decides that murdering the spoiled rich teen star of a reality show makes more sense, and it kind of does (it certainly makes Frank feel better). Before long, Frank has a sidekick named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a high school outcast who feels much the same way that Frank does about the crumbling society. And once Frank gets past the fact that she's underage, they make a good team (but not a romantic team; Frank is opposed to that idea).

There is no getting around the fact that God Bless America is probably going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, and that's essentially the point. But it's the kind of rant on film I've been dying to see, and mainstream Hollywood would never in a million years have the balls to make. The film gets a little meandering in the final third, but it's tough to shake some of the brutality that Frank delivers to representatives of a country that rewards stupidity and reward talentless celebrity. But Frank also seems a bit miffed and being made to feel like an outsider in a world where being on the inside is what really matters. Is he punishing the dummies or looking for some kind of acceptance? Either way, this movie is cold water delivered directly in the kisser via a high-pressure hose. Best of luck shaking this little slice of heaven. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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