DVD/Blu-ray: Tim Burton’s ‘Dark Shadows’

Dark Shadows (Warner) is by definition a big screen remake / revival of the late 1960s gothic soap opera, an actual daytime serial that took a turn into a world of vampires, witches, werewolves, curses, and other romantic old-school horror movie staples.

It is by nature, however, a trip to Tim Burton-land, where families learn to embrace the eccentric and the weird as part of their definition and gain strength from their differences. Though ostensibly built on characters and plots from the old TV series, it has very little to do with the show and everything to do with Burton’s affection for the ghoulish and the goofy, especially when they come wrapped together.

Dark Shadows was largely dismissed is a frivolous exercise in style and Burton excess when it was released but at heart it’s another Burton family of eccentrics that finds itself when it embraces its difference, thanks to the arrival of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, once again committed to the Burton vision). Cursed to be a vampire but inspired to raise up the Collins family name, and in the process the fractured Collins family itself, it flirts with tragedy but is more committed to the comedy of life… or resurrection, as it were.

There’s a sense of play in every Burton film, but when he puts it in the service of real family values – parental commitment, paternal protectiveness, a nurturing of the individualism that comes with rebellion – he can deliver something quite special. Think Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice or Ed Wood.

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Blu-ray: Johnny Depp in ‘Ed Wood’ in Tim Burton’s Tribute to the Filmmaker

Johnny Depp is “Ed Wood” (Touchstone), the angora loving, cross-dressing cult director in Tim Burton’s loving film biography, perhaps the most loving portrait of a filmmaker ever put on screen. Who’d have though such an honor would go to the filmmaker commonly (and unfairly) branded as “the worst director of all time”? As portrayed by a wired Depp, Wood is all ambition, energy, and passion, a filmmaker so in love with the idea of filmmaking that he lets some of the rudimentary details slip by — little things like sets getting bumped by actors, gravestones falling over, and shots mismatched so incompetently that scenes change from night to day to night again.

While that’s funny, Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski never make him a figure of derision. He presides over his flea-pit filmmaking circus like the world’s most inviting host, and his regular band of players seem drawn not so much to the art as to the affectionate, eccentric artist. Burton’s direction makes every one of his productions feel like a floating party turned experimental theater. Martin Landau’s Oscar winning performance as Bela Lugosi in his declining, morphine-addict years, is compassionate and moving, and Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, and Lisa Marie co-star. The B&W photography is crisp and beautiful and Howard Shore’s score is playful and perfect.

The Blu-ray ports over all the supplements of the DVD special edition. The well-edited commentary track, created from separate recollections by director Tim Burton, actor Martin Landau, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (with Landau reprising his Bela voice as your host), is a rich and engrossing tour through the inspiration, conception, and production of the film. It’s dominated by screenwriters, who contribute the most interesting insights to Wood and Lugosi lore, as well as the liberties they took with history. The 15-minute behind-the-scenes documentary “Let’s Shoot This F#%@r!” is an impressionist behind-the-scenes glimpse from the set, introduced by Johnny Depp in full Ed Wood drag. Also includes five deleted scenes, the short featurettes “Making Bela” (with Landau and make-up artist Rick Baker), “Pie Plates Over Hollywood” (production designer Tom Duffield creates the world of “Ed Wood”), and “The Theremin” (on the unique electronic instrument used in the score) and a Tim Burton-directed music video.

More Blu-ray debuts at Videodrone

Arrrgh! Johnny Depp and the ‘Pirates’ are Back ‘On Stranger Tides’!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney) is proof that even in this era of franchise films, CGI effects and $200 million budgets, star power counts. In the diminishing returns of this waterlogged series of films based on a theme park attraction, it’s Johnny Depp and his surefooted portrayal of punch-drunk pirate knave Captain Jack Sparrow that keeps the course.

Much of the original crew jumped ship before this installment and Gore Verbinski surrenders the helm to director Rob Marshall, who stages slapstick like dance choreography and action like a theme park ride. Which I guess is appropriate, but about as engaging as the soggy romantic stand-ins for Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom: Sam Claflin, as a missionary of a sailor, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, as a captured mermaid (in this film, they are more ferocious mythological harpies than Disney damsels), are young and pretty but hardly make an impression. Geoffrey Rush tries to single-handedly make up for them with his trademark scenery chewing bluster (which, in this case, is welcome) and Ian McShane spins his dark charm as Blackbeard, while Penélope Cruz brings the hot sauce as the tempestuous love interest for Jack while they search for the Fountain of Youth. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, that’s the goal this time. Like it matters.

“It does, I have to admit, tend to bog down in the seemingly infinite twists and bits of business leading up to the climax, and movie-overfed-critic​​ types are likely to fondly recall the better movies, including “I Walked With a Zombie” and “The Princess Bride,” that this draws inspiration from,” confesses MSN film critic Glenn Kenny, who gives the film more of a pass than I do. “(T)he “Pirates” movies have, from the beginning, tended to be bloated, overdetermined, noisy and nonsensical…. But I myself think that kind of misses the point. For as logy and simultaneously action-packed and incoherent the “Pirates” movies are as cinematic stories, they are in fact very effective and welcome movie environments.”

Then again, Kenny saw the film in the theater in 3D, where the big screen spectacle and crazy details are better able to distract from the lack of story or logic or character. Shrink it down to home theater, even on a generous screen, and the environment just becomes a backdrop, and an awfully busy one at that.

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For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks for October 18

Fear and Loathing with Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion)

Ralph Steadman cover art

Terry Gilliam’s hallucinatory 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic of gonzo journalism stars Johnny Depp as Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke and Benicio De Toro (thrillingly and terrifying unencumbered by any behavioral boundaries) as Dr. Gonzo in the drug-fueled carnival atmosphere of Las Vegas, circa 1971. It was a flop at the time, too dark and weird and unhinged for mainstream cinema, and like many Gilliam films it’s entrancing on a moment-to-moment level, losing itself in the swirls and eddies of the narrative. Sort of like Thompson in Vegas. “The closest sensory approximation of an acid trip ever achieved by a mainstream movie,” wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times.

Criterion released the film on a deluxe two-disc edition eight years ago. The Blu-ray debut features all the supplements of that release: three commentary tracks (one by director Terry Gilliam, one by stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and one by producer Laila Nabulsi and author Hunter S. Thompson), deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam, the 1978 BBC “Omnibus” documentary “Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood” (with Hunter S. Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman), the ten-minute featurette “Hunter Goes to Hollywood,” an audio documentary on the controversy over the screenplay credit, a survey of the marketing campaign, selections from the correspondence between Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson (read on camera by Depp), an excerpt from the 1996 audio CD “Fear and Loathing” starring Maury Chaykin, Jim Jarmusch, Harry Dean Stanton, and Glenne Headly, background notes on Oscar Zeta Acosta (the real life activist and attorney who inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo), and galleries of storyboards, stills, and Ralph Steadman art. The accompanying booklet features a short appreciation by J. Hoberman and reprints of two Thompson pieces (from “The Great Shark Hunt” and “Fear and Loathing in America”).

More Blu-ray reviews (including El Topo, The Holy Mountain and The Scent of Green Papaya) at MSN Videodrone.

The Tourist: Beautiful People, Glamorous Lives, No Chemistry

Tourists...

The Tourist (Sony)

A cosmopolitan, romantic espionage thriller that channels North by Northwest by way of Charade, with Johnny Depp in the Cary Grant role and Angelina Jolie as the cool, elegant and effortlessly glamorous femme fatale, and an Oscar-winning director getting his first taste of a Hollywood budget. It all seemed like the elements of a perfect big-screen confection. An American everyman (Depp) is picked out of a crowd by the most beautiful woman on screen, followed by police and foreign agents (led by a ruthlessly obsessive Paul Bettany), targeted by international gangsters (under the command of vaguely Russian baddie Steven Berkoff) and batted around by opportunistic Italian cops. And yet somehow this lavish light thriller stumbles through the set pieces and bobbles the star chemistry.

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), who adapted the screenplay (based on the French film Anthony Zimmer) with Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes (or maybe he just did the last rewrites in a long-gestating development process), makes Venice look like the most gorgeous city on Earth and shoots Jolie with the same admiring, idealizing perspective, but has no facility for light comedy, romantic sizzle or breathtaking action. And the script, while cagey in its contrivances, is neither as clever nor intelligent as the filmmakers believe it to be. For all of its Hitchcockian “wrong man” echoes and play with identity and morality, there is ultimately no real risk, no sacrifice, no weight to any of it.

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DVDs for 12/8/09 – John Dillinger, Harry Potter and Brigitte Bardot

Public Enemies (Universal) is Michael Mann’s take on the gangster glory days of the depression, when the most flamboyant and notorious bank robbers became the outlaw heroes of the day. Mann plays on that mystique in casting Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, a charmer and a cagey media player who was careful to maintain his folk-hero status as a kind of Robin Hood figure taking on the system (the banks, the cops, the government that failed America) in the depths of the depression. And while he has no compunctions about taking civilian hostages as human shields, he acts more like a host than a kidnapper, sharing jokes with his temporary captives and turning their ordeal into an adventure that they’ll be able to tell the papers and newsreels.

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

Mann is a director who loves to dissect the details of men at work and admire the professionalism of his characters in action, whether it’s the mechanics of a successful prison break or the systematic efforts of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his squad to patiently gather evidence and tail suspects until he pieces enough together to find his man. And this is a thinking man’s gangster film, less about thrills than the mechanics of Dillinger’s heists and Purvis’ investigation, which he executes with his usual precision. But it’s also about the end of the gangster era, shut down not just by the efforts of the FBI but the increasing power of the mob syndicate as it leaves violent crime behind for the less public activities like gambling. See my feature review on my blog here.

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New review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies (dir: Michael Mann)

An honest to goodness grown-up epic in the season of adolescent fantasies and overpriced empty action spectacles, Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s take on the gangster glory days of the depression, when the most flamboyant and notorious bank robbers became the outlaw heroes of the day. That makes Johnny Depp great casting as John Dillinger, whose spree of daylight bank robberies and daring getaways between May 1933 (when he was paroled after serving an almost nine-year prison stretch for armed robbery) and July 1934 got him branded “Public Enemy Number 1” by the FBI and made him a folk hero to many Americans.

Johnny Depp is John Dillinger
Johnny Depp is John Dillinger

Mann plays on that mystique in Public Enemies. Depp’s Dillinger is a charmer and a cagey media player. He targets banks not just because that’s where the money is, but because in the depths of the Depression, many dispossessed Americans saw banks as the enemy and Dillinger as a kind of Robin Hood figure getting some back for them. And while he has no compunctions about taking civilian hostages as human shields, he acts more like a host than a kidnapper, sharing jokes with his temporary captives and turning their ordeal into an adventure that they’ll be able to tell the papers and newsreels. Depp gives Dillinger a natural geniality born of confidence and courage that borders on thrill-seeking. He seems to thrive on the charge of executing a heist, whether it be a bank or a prison break. He’s cool and cagey, keeping his emotions in check on the job but for a cocky little grin that he lets slip when things are going his way, while off the job he lets himself fall for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful hat check girl that becomes the love of his outlaw life.

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