Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dark Shadows

Like a creepy Rip Van Winkle, Barnabas Collins wakes from a 200-year-long sleep into 1972 in Tim Burton's latest film.
Inhabited by Johnny Depp, we're treated to a different kind of Barnabas Collins, and a different kind of vampire. He's very thirsty, as you can imagine, and in his first awakening scene, we see him devour the blood of the crew that discovers him. But he's not as crass as you might think this act would make him. He's a snob, he's an aristocrat. He's, well, a gentleman.
Barnabas is a breath-of-fresh-air even though the air around him is rather old, in that he's different from this flower-power, hippie world he's found himself in. He tells the truth, unlike every single member of the family in his dilapidated mansion. The only one who can match him in this world, and this film, is Michelle Pfeiffer, who still has this unearthly beautiful look about her, and who looks almost as stiff as that guy in the coffin.
The movie isn't quite up to the level of these two fine performances. Burton keeps hammering at us that it's the early '70's by throwing music at us from the times, like the incongruous pairings of Top of the World (Carpenters) with No More Mister Nice Guy (Alice Cooper). Plus, he throws in things like lava lamps, disco balls, and mini-skirts, none of which has anything to do with moving the plot along. There is a story here, but it's lost in Barnabas' meanderings throughout what used to be his world.
You'd think Burton would know how to set up a joke, and finish it off. He does neither well here. Lines are just thrown about, and laughs rarely follow. Still, how Depp delivers a line is immaculate. He caresses every word, as if it's his last. He's almost an old English gentleman, and everybody loves him for it. Never mind that he leaves a trail of blood wherever he goes.
I should also mention that I do like Eva Green's impersonation of a witch. Delightfully, deliciously evil. And a good match for the innocence and good of Barnabas Collins.
Thumb's up for another amazing transformation by Johnny Depp. His Barnabas Collins doesn't at all remind you of Jonathan Frid, who has a small cameo here (right before he died, sadly), but is endearing and fresh.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Bernie is a bizarre little movie calling together some very good and some great talents. What’s even more bizarre is that it’s based on a true story. If you don’t want to know the “secret” of the film, don’t read the next several paragraphs. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is an assistant funeral director in the small and rural town of Carthage, Texas. Everybody loves Bernie. The guy was everywhere: teaching Sunday school, singing in the church choir, directing school plays. It came as no surprise to everyone when he befriended Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a widow who lost her husband recently, but who was as sour on life as she was rich. People figured Marjorie got the best part of this friendship until Bernie killed her. Bernie was able to hide the body until the sheriff (Matthew McConaughey), Marjorie’s estranged sister, and Marjorie’s stockbroker found the body five months later. Everyone who has reviewed the film says this is Jack Black’s best acting, because he plays it straight and earnest. I mean, who wouldn’t like Bernie as portrayed as Jack Black? It seems the little town couldn’t do without him, and was loathe, even after a confession, to believe ill of him, even to this day. The charming thing about the movie is that it’s narrated by interviews with townspeople. Most of them are irascible and funny in their own right. Some of the real residents of Carthage provided their own commentary on the events. Shirley MacLaine – well, she’s a legend. Just look at that face, and you’ll see more emotions than Theda Bara could express. She has very little dialogue, but you know exactly what she’s feeling in each scene. Amazing. I found the story rather tedious but still I was curious to see what was going to happen. I think the latter is due to fine acting rather than a scintillating screenplay. This is a small film: the budget was only $6 million. If you “know” anything at all about small towns and find that kind of humor funny, it’s almost a laugh-a-minute. For the rest of us, it’s repetitious and slow in parts. Still, I would have to give it a thumb’s up, just because it’s such a different little film.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

My father introduced me to science fiction. He loved it, and he especially loved The Planet of the Apes franchise.
I think he'd be surprised to note that The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, some 44 years after the first one, is actually a prequel.
The movie immediately sets up your sympathy -- no, really, your empathy -- for the chimpanzees and their plight as secondary to man. And, because of this, and the cruelty and brutality you'll witness in many scenes, there will be heartache after heartache.
This movie is done very well, with a superb story and special effects. Notable above all is Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar, who brings home day-old chimpanzee baby by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), on the day Rodman's career comes tumbling down due to a miscue. Will continues to raise Caesar while caring for his dad (played by John Lithgow), who is obviously slipping irrevocably into Alzheimer's. Caesar, as it turns out, inherits the drug Will and his fellow scientists had injected into his mother, increasing the chimp's intelligence many times over, and so Will gets the idea to (illegally and unethically) inject his father with the same drug.
There are many homages to the original series, including several names given to some of the secondary characters, And Tom Felton's character, a worker inside the chimp house where Caesar eventually ends up, is given several pieces of dialogue from the original. If you're familiar with PotA, it's a lot of fun.
The movie doesn't follow PotA canon at all, and I wonder that, if they continue with sequels which are prequels, how they would try to make that all mesh. However, I really enjoyed the ride and tried not to think about that too much. There are certainly several scenes that, if "I wonder how they did that?" didn't rise to your lips, your mouth certainly flew open. The scenes on the Golden Gate Bridge, especially, were stunning.
I think my father would've enjoyed this movie, although, frankly, his favorite scenes were between Charlton Heston and "those damn, dirty apes," played by Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter. Who could not love intelligent conversations between chimps and Ben-Hur? Sadly -- or thankfully -- there was nothing resembling those scenes here. But if there are more pre- sequels, there certainly may be. And I'll be there for it.
Thumb's up.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


There are your usual alien movies, and then there's Paul. This is one alien who's not jumping out of someone's stomach, for sure.
Two Brits live an adult-long dream and go to the States for the first time to attend Comic-Con in San Diego. After the big event, they rent an RV and drive to mysterious geographical environs like Area 51, just to take stupid photos and dream about alien invasions. While there, however, they encounter the real thing. And that's when their real adventure begins.
If you're a fan of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost co-writing duo, you'll want to take a look at Paul. "Paul" is the name of the alien, who was named after a little girl's dog, who disappeared while looking into a fallen spaceship. That sentence is about as complicated as it gets here, although the British tourists do wind up getting chased by born-again Christians and government agents on their journey, mostly because they have this funny-looking dude in their RV.
Paul is the rudest, most foul-mouthed alien you'll ever meet, and that's because he's voiced by Seth Rogen, something that is so totally transparent to be downright funny in its own right. Most of the jokes are around how unstereotypical this alien is. Fart jokes are not beyond this movie, trust me. If you're a Seth Rogen fan (take a look at 50/50 for some of his best, most recent work), you will love this little guy.
The movie, true to Pegg/Frost, has a storyline with a moral line thrown in for good measure, and although it doesn't even closely resemble the touchdown the two scored with "Shaun of the Dead," it has its own funny moments. Casting helps -- Kristen Wiig is employed as a love interest, Bill Hader (also from Saturday Night Live) is a young FBI agent, Jason Bateman as a veteran FBI agent, and Jane Lynch, briefly, as a shopkeeper in Area 51. There are several other veteran character actors sprinkled along the road, but I don't want to spoil the surprises. Also, there are several references to sci fi movies that I found terribly delightful. They will whiz right by you if you're not paying attention.
Paul isn't terribly clever, but it does have some guffaw-quality moments. Thumb's up.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Avengers

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has as big a problem as the screenplay writers in this muchly anticipated summer blockbuster: how to get these big egos to work together rather than trying to destroy each other. And the screenplay writers (director Joss Whedon among them) make a valiant attempt to get six superheroes equal screen time. I am happy to report that each succeeds.
Loki and his army have figured out a way to open a portal to Earth. Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. call together the Marvel heroes to make sure he doesn't succeed in taking over the Earth.
A couple of these "heroes" don't have any superpowers at all. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johnasson) seems to be very limber, and also seems capable of extracting information without torture. She and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have some sort of past connection, but we don't find out much about that. Hawkeye has an unerring eye for an arrow to reach its target, but has no super power at all. And you might be able to add Captain America to that group as well; although "enhanced," he doesn't have any powers that come close to other members of the team, like the Hulk or Iron Man.
While Robert Downey, Jr.'s personality seems to overpower every scene he's in, he doesn't completely take over the story, thankfully. Each of these personalities is interesting in its own right, and I can't decide which one is more interesting over the other. I do, however, like Mark Ruffalo's meek but smilingly intense way of tackling Bruce Banner. When he says that his secret is that he's always angry, you know what the green guy is all about.
There are many fun and funny moments in the movie, moments that Whedon has built in. Just when you think our guys are getting along and working together, someone will pummel someone. I don't want to reveal any of these surprising moments, but they're quite funny, and the audience will erupt in spontaneous laughter. Because they know their Marvel characters very well, and even they doubt these guys will ever find a way of working together.
It was also fun seeing some character actors among the A-listers, like Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother), who plays Agent Hill, the quite capable commander in S.H.I.E.L.D. under Fury's direction. We also see Pepper Potts (Gwynyth Paltrow) briefly and wish it was more.
But that's true, at least for me, of every character. The movie is more than 2 hours, but it seems brief. I want to see more of each character. I guess I'll have to wait for the inevitable Avengers 2. With this casting and this writing, I'm sure it will be worth the wait.
Thumb's up.