Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bernie and The Dictator

          Partly Truth and Partly Fiction
                                  Review by Ken Burke             Bernie

A disturbingly funny tale of almost-justifiable murder, softened by folksy forgiveness with a cast based on real-life "characters" from the piney woods of East Texas, y’all.

                                                                                                                The Dictator
Sasha Baron Cohen ups the ante on political incorrectness regarding anti-American attitudes from a cruel but clueless Arab meanie; hilarious if you’re not grossly offended.    
            Now, y’all lissen up!  I’m fixin’ to tell ya ‘bout this new movie ‘bout that undertaker boy from Carthage … ya know, tha one that got in trouble awhil’ back fer killin’ that ol’ bitch that had more money’n God ‘n then stuck her in tha freezer?  Yeah, you ‘member him?  Well, now there’s this movie all ‘bout it that’ll keep ya busy ‘til them Tuna, Texas boys git ‘nother one of their stories tagether that we’n go on over ta Fo't Worth ta see.

            If I hadn’t been born in Texas and spent a bit over half my life there before moving to California (Reminds of a joke from those days: “Hey, old man.  You lived here all your life?”  “Not yet.”) I might not be inclined to believe that Richard Linklater’s newest film Bernie could be based on the true story of a gay undertaker—excuse me, Assistant Funeral Director—who becomes the constant caretaker and traveling companion of a wealthy, despicable widow, then kills her and has the whole town rooting for his innocence when he goes to trial.  However, having been there (Texas) and done that (don’t ask), along with recognizing that Linklater is a Houston native who knows of what he speaks (with very insightful central Texas movies Slacker [1991] and Dazed and Confused [1993, also with Matthew McConaughey] that first brought him to public attention before he diversified into completely different tales such as Before Sunrise [1995], SubUrbia [1996], Waking Life [2001], The School of Rock [2003, also with Jack Black], Before Sunset [2004], and A Scanner Darkly [2006]—although I still content that I should have had his career because I was in Austin from 1966-72, then again 1974-1977 and frequently noted the idea used in Slacker about a film that just randomly follows a succession of characters around without a central plot, so he obviously pulled it from the ozone still wafting through town without even so much as an acknowledgement to me in the credits [just as I never got credit nor royalties for inventing the international best-seller, the Cherry 7-Up, at the Surf Drive-In in Galveston in 1966, much to the waitress’ surprise and disgust]; of course beyond that original Slacker idea I would have to had Linklater’s immense talent to actually have generated such a career, but let’s not quibble over small details), I can really appreciate how he’s captured small-town Texas life, so familiar to me from decades of visiting my grandmother and then my retired parents in Clyde, a roughly 2,000-population berg 15 miles east of Abilene (OK, Abilene’s 180 miles west of Dallas; are we oriented yet?).  The specifics of prairie-town Clyde may be a bit different than in more piney-woods Carthage, but many of the folks that Linklater has incorporated into his fictional biography of Bernie Tiede are the real thing, obviously speaking about the actual Bernie not Jack Black’s scripted version of the endearing but totally guilty homocidalist who seemed to be generating business for his funeral parlor.

            Black is to be praised, as always, for giving us a character that’s hard to dislike, even if we don’t agree with his decisions or their motivations, just as Shirley MacLaine perfectly portrays Marjorie Nugent as a sour apple appropriate to be plucked and put in cold storage (with her personality indicated by leather-skin arms that finally soften a bit after Bernie starts coaxing her off to massages and away-from-Texas vacations so that she’s not always surrounded in her huge house with the stuffed bodies of the animals once shot by her husband, now as dead as they are; but she remains at heart the woman who can “rip you a 3-bedroom, 2-bath, double-wide new asshole” when crossed) and Matthew McConaughey (who grew up in Longview, a hub—of sorts—of east Texas, very close to Bernie’s neighborhood) is convincing as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, determined to enforce the law regarding murder (and body-stashing) despite Bernie’s vast popularity in close-knit Carthage.  What makes the film so appealing to me is how well Linklater has constructed the flow, alternating between the ongoing story of Bernie’s increasing relationship bondage with Marjorie (not the 50 Shades of Grey type, just his subservience to her constant demands on him as a sort of social secretary) and the scripted or otherwise testimony from actual locals and plausible actors on these two primary characters—although for those not from Texas or other parts of the South these depictions will just reinforce the usual negative stereotypes of what Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence used to parody in their “Mama’s Family” skits, but having known people in Clyde (who shall remain nameless, lest I get sued as Linklater did for using names of former friends in Dazed and Confused) who were just like “Mama” or some of the Carthage chorus I have to admit that stereotypes are grounded in some truth, even if it gets viciously exaggerated in fictional applications.  Judging from the raucous, but not mean-spirited, laughter in the Pleasant Hill, CA theatre where I saw Bernie with an audience I’d judge to be in my age bracket (where the first thought of “Elvis” isn’t about Costello, and even the first thought of Costello is for Lou, not English Elvis, and “Who’s on first?” [If you’re still drawing a blank, see, although if you don’t care for either baseball or absurdist comedy it probably won’t matter much]), I think there are plenty of people who can appreciate the frustrated belittlement behind Bernie’s misguided choice of an exit strategy with Marjorie, understand why such a unique public figure was so well loved in his own community (although his sexual orientation probably wouldn’t have gotten him many votes if he’d been running for mayor, he was an active and respected neighbor with his church and little theatre activities), and at least see the common humanity in the Carthage opinion-sharers even if they don’t express themselves in a manner all that familiar to us high-falutin’ city folks.

            I can understand how those of you who’ve never met someone like Bernie Tiede (photo on your right) or others of the good people of deep east Texas (a bit of a separate country of its own, within a state that prides itself on having once been an independent country before joining the U.S., as explained early on in the film for outsiders who can’t appreciate the intra-state tensions that arise among the 5 primary regions [excluding the Lubbock-Amarillo panhandle area which is sort of a lost cause, even for other Texans, despite giving us Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings], and I admit I’m more familiar with the west, central, and southeast areas myself, having mostly just driven through the east and south zones on my way to other destinations) may find Bernie to be as exaggerated as The Dictator’s depiction of a crazy tyrant from North Africa, but if you think that I’d recommend that you take a look at an information source such as (unfortunately with a rather jerky video download, at least on my computer) to get a sense of the real Bernie Tiede who sees the unity of comedy and tragedy in every aspect of life, even if some residents of Carthage, including D.A. Davidson, don’t see anything funny about the killing of Nugent.  Murder isn’t a joke, but sometimes life is so strange and tragic that we need to see and accept the craziness that weaves through it for all of us in order to keep what sanity that we can.  Bernie helped me accomplish that; I recommend that you seriously consider seeing it because I think it’s well worth the encounter even if you ultimately find yourself agreeing with Danny Buck about its impropriety.

            Impropriety may drive you out of the theatre, though, if you attempt The Dictator, as this latest assault on political correctness from Sacha Baron Cohen, directed by Larry Charles, is so intentionally offensive that unless you can see it for the satire it’s intended to be, not only on megalomaniacal despots but also on the evolving concepts of freedom and tyranny in our increasingly complicated world, then you’re bound to be put off by it, whether you’re Arabic (Cohen’s Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen says he isn’t, nor is Islam made a target of ridicule, but the Maummar Khadafy-Saddam Hussein-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implications are so clearly constructed as to leave no doubt about the inspirations for his character and the xenophobic disgust we’re supposed to feel toward him), patriotic American (our politics, including kneejerk racism, come in for as much of a critique as does the ideology of totalitarian Middle Eastern nations), eco-feminist (if the produce sold in Zoey’s [Anna Faris] Free Earth Collective got any more environmentally friendly you’d have to come there and grow it yourself, then eat it on the spot so that you wouldn’t leave any carbon [-based life form] footprints travelling to and from the store), or even just a member of a Harlem drug gang (for this reference you just have to see The Dictator, which goes beyond even the seemingly-unbelievable levels of plot contrivance in Bernie).  You should know going in that any film that begins with a dedication to departed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and features a protagonist such as the one in the above-left photo isn’t intended to be taken seriously, even when dealing with a subject as serious as U.S. paranoia about radical Islamic terrorists and harsh rulers of countries with cultures that are largely incomprehensible to us.  Further, after the savage attacks on narrative and cultural propriety in Cohen’s previous Borat (Charles, 2006—I’ll spare you the full title) and Brüno (Charles, 2009) you would be further ill-advised to expect anything remotely balanced or tactful here.  With all of those warnings in place, all I can say about The Dictator is that I find it hilarious in its intentionally distasteful attacks on the stereotypes perpetuated in our popular media on virtually everyone from Morocco to India (while admitting, as with Bernie, that stereotypes do evolve from aspects of truth, including the truths of despotic madmen past and present running many of the countries in the geographic swath noted above and crazed terrorists who probably would like to destroy the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty rather than joke about such—although based on past depictions we might well see those landmarks threatened by fictional villains of another variety as variations on Spider-Man and Avengers stories continue to target oft-abused Manhattan in future fantasy extravaganzas of these high-profile franchises).

            Suffice it to say that with The Dictator we are quickly given a bogus sociopolitical history lesson on the fictional country of the Republic of Wadiya (far too close to Libya to be understood as anything else) and why the current occupant of their flamboyant palace is so self-absorbed and evil as to need “Atrocious” added to his other titles (even to the point of playing a big-screen video game where he kills Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics).  Yet, also in the brief but effective opening scenes we learn that he’s a very lonely man (his mother “died” in childbirth as the result of some unintended offense, but not the worst crime of motherhood, that of bearing a daughter for his equally-evil father) who fills his cuddling needs with an endless string of prostitutes memorialized in a huge photo “album” on his wall, a collection that includes among others Oprah Winfrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Just as quickly as in the opening scenes, things change for Aladeen as he visits NYC to speak to the U.N. but is replaced with a simple-minded goat-herder double by the conspiratorial second-in-command Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who has his own plot of getting the double to sign a new constitution that would allow Wadiya’s vast oil reserves to be exploited by the usual gang of global corporations and the Chinese.  After escaping an assassination attempt, Aladeen is taken in (under misunderstood premises) by Zoey, reclaims his authority, and seemingly has been transformed by Zoey’s example (and her teaching him how to masturbate, with results that are illustrated by images of soaring eagles, splashing dolphins, a basketball dunk, and a clip from Forrest Gump [Robert Zemeckis, 1994] where the tormented kid literally runs out of his leg brace) to declare that real change will come to his country.  However, in the equally-quick closing scenes (the film has a great energetic pace, finishing its goofiness in a mere 83 minutes) we must question his “conversion” as we see tanks forcing Aladeen’s subjects to move to the voting line for “democratically” electing him as President (I guess Russia’s seemingly eternal ruler, Vladimir Putin, gave him advice on that one) and when his now-wife Zoey tells him she’s expecting he ends the story with the pertinent question of “Are you having a boy or an abortion?”  As noted above, none of this will go over easily if you take any of it at face value (a constant danger with the fierce humor of satire, which completely loses its intention and impact if understood literally, as it invariably is by certain audience members), but if you can appreciate the mockery that Cohen is making of the blind acceptance of the things he’s criticizing throughout the film—including his scathing condemnation of hypocritical American “democracy” where Aladeen says we don’t have the luxury of living under a dictatorship where we could be ruled by a self-serving government and manipulated by the powerful 1% who really run our society—I think you’ll find The Dictator to be an hilariously useful antidote to the cringe-worthy political ads, political maneuverings, and sociopolitical corruption that has invaded our country more successfully than Osama bin Laden’s terrorists ever hoped to accomplish.

            Of course, in declaring my own ideological perspective with such a charged statement I realize that I’m chasing away any potential audience for The Dictator that doesn’t want to be offended by such “humor” and I confirm my self-resolution to not try to arrange a double feature of Bernie and The Dictator at a Carthage, TX movie theatre, but for those Northern California-type “granolas” like me (you know, fruits and nuts), no matter where you live, I think this film is about as constantly laugh-out-loud funny as you can get.  (About the only thing Cohen didn’t include was an updated Abbott and Costello routine of an al-Qaeda strategy meeting that opens with “Who’s bombed first?” … OK, with that I’d better say “Goodnight, Gracie”—and if that reference doesn’t make any more sense than “Who’s on first?” then I suggest a little research on another great vaudeville team, Burns and Allen, at a site such as or other sources including YouTube where you can find many clips and episodes of their TV series.  But knowing what you now do about my tastes in humor, maybe you’d be better off with reruns of The Big Bang Theory; as with the option of interplanetary peace or immanent destruction at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still [Robert Wise, 1951], the choice is yours—how’s that for real democracy?)

            If you’re interested in learning more about Bernie here are some suggested links: (a cluster of trailer and clips; or, if you’re interested just put “Bernie” into YouTube search and you can also get Bernie Mac, Weekend at Bernie’s clip, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Madoff, all on just the first page)

            If you’re interested in learning more about The Dictator here are some suggested links: (this is YouTube’s “official site” for the “Republic of Wadiya” with movie trailer, clips, etc.)

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar and Dark Shadows

          Ruminations on Life After Life: Serious and Seriously Silly
                 Review by Ken Burke        Monsieur Lazhar
A heartbreaking story about a teacher immigrant into Canada who provides the comfort and hope his kids need but finds little for himself on a personal or professional basis.
                                                                                                   Dark Shadows
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are together again with their revival of an old TV vampire soap opera which probably tells you all you need to know regarding your interest level.
            Given what I’ve seen of the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film nominees—first Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel), now Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, Canada)—and the deserving winner, A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran), if the other two—Bullhead (Michael R. Roskam, Belgium) and In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland, Poland)—are equally magnificent then there’s even more argument for the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences to retreat from their new “up to 10” nominees for overall Best Picture, returning to their many-decades standard of just the top 5 rather than diluting the pool for the main trophy when the contest should just be for true contenders from the Hollywood (and Hollywood-influenced) system.  (With the understanding that the Best Picture category was expanded a couple of years ago only to provide more options for audience-friendly moneymakers, such as the notoriously-overlooked The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008], rather than just critic-friendly “tasteful accomplishments” in an effort to improve TV ratings for the awards broadcast; however, when that allows last year’s finalists to include The Help [Tate Taylor]—acting and adapted screenplay yes, overall film no—Midnight in Paris [Woody Allen]—original screenplay yes, overall film no [in my Top 10, admittedly, but at #9, not #’s1-5]—Moneyball [Bennett Miller] adapted screenplay [anyone who could turn that statistics-laden book in a reasonably-effective dramatic movie deserves a nomination] and “Let’s go A’s” yes [for local fans like me at least], overall film no—and War Horse [Steven Spielberg]—cinematography, art direction, sound yes, overall film no—then I think we should give more credence to what a true cluster of top-notch contestants looks like, as evidenced by this year’s fine collection of films from overseas and across the USA’s northern border.)  I found Monsieur Lazhar to be simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, demonstrating what can come of a simple premise treated respectfully and acted superbly.  That premise involves death and its impact on everyone in the film: the students, teachers, administrators, and parents connected to a Montréal elementary school where a teacher has horrified everyone by hanging herself in her classroom on a winter day when the children were at recess and new teacher Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) appears from nowhere as a needed refuge for the kids (sort of like Mary Poppins in a less whimsical setting) but battling his own death demons regarding the murder of his wife and children back in his home country of Algeria (although his grief only comes slowly to light for both the audience and the other characters in the story).

            This film slowly builds up to an emotional avalanche of feelings that overwhelm its viewers regarding all concerned in the narrative, but especially Lazhar and the two children most focused on, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who are the only students to have actually seen their former teacher, Martine Lachance, dangling from the ceiling as the other kids were whisked back out into their snowy schoolyard.  There’s plenty of remorse from all concerned at the school over the unexpected loss of a popular member of their community—as well as the remorse that Lazhar constantly grapples with in regard to the loss of his own children and wife as the result of political repression due to his wife’s defiant act of writing a book critical of the Algerian regime—but there’s also a lot of denial, guilt, and outright lying that isn’t helping anyone resolve their issues either.  The denial comes from the school staff and the parents who try to quickly move past the awful act of Ms. Lachance through surface solutions such as repainting the classroom a different color (the children have to stay in the haunted room because there’s no other option in their crowded school) and insisting that Lazhar not try to psychoanalyze their offspring (although his attempts to get the kids to express their buried emotions is a more positive response than the school’s assignment of 1 counselor to assist any of the many students in the class who even try to open up about their grief).  The guilt comes from both the principal and the other teachers who seemed to have no sense that Lachance was (literally) on her last legs, as well as from emotionally-fragile Simon who caused a ruckus for Lachance by resisting her attempt at a comforting hug, in violation of the school’s rigid “no physical contact with students” policy, leading to a reprimand for her, further trauma for Simon (who understands that he’s perceived as “crazy” by the other kids), and constant tensions with his on-again, off-again friend Alice who tries to goad him into admitting his contribution to Lachance’s suicide.  The lying, it turns out, comes from Lazhar himself, not to the Immigration Service where he’s desperately trying to gain asylum as a political refugee so that he won’t be sent back to certain death in Algeria but instead to the school that has offered him a chance at a new life as a teacher when that was actually his wife’s career while he ran a restaurant back home.  His subterfuge doesn’t help his case any when things go bad again at the school, but that’s not the direct reason for his dismissal.

            Instead, he is let go after his few months of bringing balance back into the lives of his students because he refused to follow the parents’ demands that he not encourage their children to voice their inner turmoil over Lachance’s tragic death (I should say “Martine” because that’s how her students refer to her—just as they eventually call him by the more familiar “Bachir,” another indication of how removed he is not only from his former desert environment but also from a more formal educational system where desks are put in rows instead of a semi-circle, dictation assignments from a writer such as Balzac and his “ancient” French are acceptable but not for his New World Québécois students, and a swat on the head to a smart-mouth kid is a standard form of classroom discipline unlike the “hands off” policy he must now adapt to).  In addition to allowing Alice to read an essay in which she turns her grief into anger toward Martine, calling her suicide a “violent” act which runs counter to school policy (Lazhar is also chastised by another teacher one day for allowing a group of boys to play a roughhouse round of “king of the hill” in the schoolyard), Bachir finally encourages Simon to voice his own deeply-held inner disturbance over his connection to the suicide and his desperate need for absolution, leading to parental complaints that result in both Lazhar’s immediate departure and the firing of the principal, Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Prouix), at term’s end.  Bachir pleads for one more day to bring closure to his departure unlike the sudden exit of Lachance; this allows him to read his own version of a class assignment, a fable with a moral.

            His simple but moving story (about a tree with a hanging chrysalis that is destroyed when fire occurs in just a part of the tree, leaving the charred host to tell future nesting birds about the sad loss of a life that would never blossom into its intended manifestation) is told in prose but has a poetic impact that seems to sum up all that’s come before in this tender, traumatic, terrific film.  Lazhar gets a chance for a private hug from Alice before final fade-out; the other students have come to embrace him as well (although not as literally; that “no touching” school policy works to keep everyone’s emotions disturbingly in check, despite its benign intentions), overcoming their initial resistance to his more stringent ways—in a manner less restrained than the school assembly celebration of Will Schuester as Teacher of the Year in this week’s episode of FOX TV’s “Glee” after his New Directions show choir (i.e. the glee club) finally triumphed at Nationals—but the acceptance of these younger children for the man who guided them through their hour of darkness was just as heartfelt, if not more so, because most of Schuester’s stars are headed into their newly-earned independence of young adulthood while Lazhar’s kids must continue to cope for the next few years with their ever-changing childhoods in the same haunted surroundings where their greatest emotional challenge occurred.  When we first meet this Algerian refugee he explains to the principal that his names in Arabic means “bearer of good news” and “lucky”; by the time we last see him we understand that these attributes may apply more appropriately to the students he’s “intruded” on, leaving them with a gift of reconciliation that their more formal school was not equipped to offer.  Whether he will ever be able to embrace his own healing is not a part of this story:  we (and he) were offered hope that some relief might be available from friendly fellow teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart), but he resists to the point that even the lovely African violet that she gives him dies when winter turns to spring, indicating that at present his soul is just too barren to encourage life in anything except for the temporary connection to his students.  At least the facts of his family’s deaths lead to Bachir being granted political asylum so hopefully a stable life in Canada will eventually open up for him before he finds himself as lost as his predecessor at the school.  Fittingly, though, this film doesn’t attempt to provide answers to such questions, nor should it.  What happens next is for us to speculate on, not know with certainty.

            Monsieur Lazhar is subtle, sublime, and softly searing in its journey into the human experience.  If I have to choose between powerful expositions of the never-ending hurdle we know as “life” I’ll still say that A Separation probes even a little deeper, but spending time with either this Iranian gem or with Monsieur Lazhar will immeasurably enrich your life.  I sincerely hope you can see both, at least on DVD if not on a theatre's visually-embracing screen.

            Shifting to another take on death and its aftermath brings us to Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, his latest successful collaboration with Johnny Depp whose embrace of offbeat roles that would elude the talents of most other actors is showcased once again as the disturbed, displaced vampire, Barnabas Collins.  Beginning in 1750 (I think.  Anyway that’s what the official Warner Bros. website says below despite many information sites, including what Warners provided to IMDb, stating 1752 and my screening of the movie where I wrote down 1760, further proof that the Internet-driven world is moving too fast for me or anyone else to keep up with), we find the Collins family with young Barnabas moving from old England to New England to establish a fishing empire, along with a coastal town, Collinsport, to house their enterprise and a huge 200-room mansion, Collinwood Manor, to house the family on acres of hilltop property along with an ominously steep cliff that plays a key role at the movie’s beginning and end.  Alas for young adult Barnabas, even as he is enamored of the fair and pure Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) he faces the jealousy of servant girl Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) who has charmed him with her lusty ways at times.  When Angelique is not Barnabas’ choice for a permanent mate, though, she uses charms of the witchy variety to not only kill Barnabas’ parents and compel Josette to hurl herself from the aforementioned cliff but also to turn Barnabas into a vampire when he desperately jumps to what was intended as his death as well.  Despite his fury at Angelique, for some reason Barnabas doesn’t take immediate revenge allowing her time to turn the typical pitchfork-and-torch brigade of townsfolk against the newly minted monster, resulting in Barnabas being chained in a coffin, then long buried and forgotten until he’s accidently stumbled upon in 1972, freeing the blood-hungry time-traveler only to find that his descendants have descended into near poverty, the mansion is largely closed off for lack of servants (resembling an abandoned Xanadu from Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941—see I told you in a previous review that I’d bring up this film every chance I get]), the family business is nearly defunct because of the corporate power of the newly-evolved Angel Bay Fishery, and—worst of all—Angel Bay is run by the never-aging Angelique who simply portrays her own imaginary ancestors, changing her name and having new portraits produced for each generation.  Is this any way for a lonely vampire to celebrate his homecoming?

Barnabas (Depp), Angelique (Green), and director Burton
            The one thing that Barnabas has to brighten the less-than-inspiring reunion with his relatives is that Josette seems to be reincarnated as the new governess for young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), so Barnabas has another chance with Josette (or at least some version of her, as close to the real thing as Victoria could be, beginning the film compelled to escape NYC and find her way to Collinwood) or so he thinks until Angelique comes roaring up in her sporty red Chevy, ready to see if Barnabas has softened his rejection of her passion for him after his 200 years of hibernation.  He does … and then he doesn’t, determined to overlook their one howling-horndog trashing of her office (Alice Cooper should be so good at destroying a room, but he does so later in his own way, performing as himself at the gala event Barnabas throws for Collinsport in an attempt to build better community relations for his forlorn, almost-forgotten family), re-establish the pre-eminence of the Collins fishery, and reignite his romance with Josette/Victoria, all of which is helped considerably by the stash of gold and jewels hidden in a vault beneath the main Collinwood fireplace.  From there the plot is mostly the ongoing clash between lovelorn vampire and jealous witch, which results in a lot of explosive action that demolishes all of the Collins properties (although the inhabitants get out alive), sees the ultimate demise of Angelique (thanks to the ghost of David’s mother, another victim of the witch’s vengeful crusade), and concludes with Victoria taking the high-cliff plunge followed by Barnabas who bites her on the way down so that they both survive as besotted bloodsuckers who will probably wing their way to a town with a video store so they can catch up on the Twilight series wearing Team Edward T-shirts (although the one vampire thing that Barnabas never does is turn into a bat so they may just have to hitch a ride with whoever made off with Angelique’s Chevy).

Depp (current film) and Frid (original TV series)
            When the original Dark Shadows ABC TV series was on (1966-71, with Jonathan Frid as Barnabas) I wasn’t watching weekday afternoon horror-soap operas, being rather occupied at the time attending the fabled University of Texas and spending my afternoons in art classes trying to figure out what the hell I was trying to paint (abstraction can be so confounding; if you get a chance to see a production of John Logan’s play Red, about the great Abstraction Expressionist Mark Rothko, I encourage you to do so because this work provides great insights into the demands and demons of the creative process), so nothing in this movie has any baggage for me in terms of expectations (although Depp says he was a big fan of the original so it’s a sweet victory for him to bring Barnabas back to life).  In looking over some commentary on what I missed in those long-ago years I see that the current plot is well vested in the original, although, obviously, trying to squeeze anything from the original 1,225 episodes into a standard 2-hour movie requires a lot of cherry-picking.  However, picking up in time roughly where the TV series concluded, 1972, provides a nice acknowledgement for the fervent fans of the previous incarnation and gives Burton and company some great opportunities for ersatz nostalgia regarding the clothes, accessories, and music of the day (with tunes like the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” being especially appropriate, and Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” just great to hear again)—along with Barnabas’ constant anachronistic problems with not understanding how much the world has changed during the two centuries he laid buried in his coffin, even mistaking the McDonald’s arches for the gateway to Hell, one of the least desirable product placements I’ve ever seen.

            Other delights of this movie include seeing familiar faces in some of the family and related roles—Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the current matriarch (just seeing her as anything is a treat for me; my wife, Nina, doesn’t mind this time around because she gets Depp, so no dirty looks across the armrest from either of us); Helena Bonham Carter (of course, it’s a Tim Burton film and he doesn’t want to leave his significant other home alone, but she’s worth casting even without nepotism) as Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist (Huh?  Don’t ask; I didn’t bother to research that far); Chloë Grace Moretz (from Kick-Ass [Matthew Vaughn, 2010] and Hugo [Martin Scorsese, 2011]) as Elizabeth’s rebellious teen daughter, Caroline (with reason to be anti-social, as we eventually find out that she’s a werewolf; family reunions must be hilariously unpredictable at Collinwood); Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach in Watchmen [Zack Snyder, 2009], Freddy Krueger in the remade A Nightmare on Elm Street [Samuel Bayer, 2010]) as Willie Loomis, the caretaker; and Dracula icon Christopher Lee in the minor role of Silas Clarney, self-proclaimed “king of the fishermen”—and not quite as familiar but still marvelously effective Eva Green as Angelique, although she’s possibly memorable to some of you for Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) and the James Bond reboot Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006).  Dark Shadows certainly isn’t the most effective Burton-Depp collaboration (for me that honor would have to go to either Ed Wood [1994] or Edward Scissorhands [1990] although there are plenty of other choices for those with different tastes), but it’s one that brings a lot of appreciative laughs from those of us not well versed in the original TV show and probably a lot of pleasantly resurrected memories for those who were fans of the source material.  

          Dark Shadows has none of the gravitas of Monsieur Lazhar, but that’s not its intention.  Anyone who’s eager to see Depp or any of the others noted above won’t find your time wasted, even if you’re not a vampire with all the time in the world to kill (so to speak).

            If you’d like to know more about Monsieur Lazhar here are some suggested links: (this is a short clip from the film)

            If you’d like to know more about Dark Shadows here are some suggested links: (a casual introduction to the characters with inset photos of the original TV cast)

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.