March 8, 2015

salvation Greetings again from the darkness. It is initially a bit disorienting to settle in to watch a Western shot in South Africa by Danish filmmakers with a story based in 19th century America. However, any doubts are quickly forgotten thanks to terrific writing, powerful acting, and creative camera work set to a distinctive soundtrack.

Blood, dirt, politics, true loss and crackling gun play accompany what is, at its core, a story of vengeance … and of course, good vs evil. We open in 1871 America, seven years after Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) left Denmark after fighting in the war. Today is the day that Jon’s wife (singer Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke) arrive, and the separation has been tough on all. The reunion is destroyed in the most awful manner imaginable thanks to a couple of drunken ex-cons sharing the stagecoach. Of course, salvation and vengeance would not be required if there were no turning point, and Jon’s natural reaction is what sparks the real fireworks in the story.

One of the bad guys on the wagon is the brother of powerful local gangster Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). We quickly learn he is not a rational man and cares little for anything other than making money and gaining revenge on his brother’s killer. Delarue stands for all the bullies of any era, while Jon and his brother Pete represent the huddled masses incited to action only through gross injustice. There are many details and elements that set this above the traditional western, and one of those is the presence of Madelaine (Eva Green) who was married to Delarue’s murdered brother, and was previously disfigured and muted by Native Americans.

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities and influences of John Ford, Sergio Leone and the classic High Noon (cowardly townspeople, morals corrupted under duress). Director Kristian Levring even superimposes the very familiar vistas of Monument Valley into some shots, and it’s done so well that our eyes simply accept the landscape. Mr. Levring also presents us a uniquely lit stagecoach in the moonlight scene that was beautiful to look at, despite the violent nature of what was happening. Composer Kasper Winding (brother to director Nicolas Winding Refn) adds a distinctive guitar that recalls the haunting effects of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in America … a very effective complement.

The lead actors are superb and well cast – though Jeffrey Dean Morgan goes 180 degrees against type as the evil-to-the-bone Delarue. Eva Green speaks volumes with her fiery eyes, and Mikael Persbrandt (who was so great in In A Better World) adds to the quiet-wild feel of the film. The bulk of the action falls to Mads Mikkelsen, who thanks to Casino Royale, The Hunt, and TV’s “Hannibal” has become one of the finest actors working today. His facial tics and emotional depth convey much with few words, and his character’s expert marksmanship with a Remington rifle is a welcome shift from the spraying automatic weaponry too common in film these days.

The politics of taking advantage of the unaware weak runs throughout the films, especially with the methodical “land grab” occurring so that the rich can capitalize on the “sticky oil” spoiling the water wells. You may not be a fan of Westerns, but there is much going on in this excellent script – and the visuals combined with expert acting should allow you to appreciate what expert filmmaking this is (especially given the low budget).

watch the trailer:



May 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone ever asks “What was the name of that late 60’s goth, supernatural soap opera with the cult following?“, it’s safe to assume they mean the TV series “Dark Shadows“. It ran from 1966-1971 for a remarkable 1225 episodes. For those who remember it, the image they recall tends to be actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabus Collins … the first vampire most of us ever saw outside of a Friday night horror film. The series made quite an impact on two young boys in particular: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

There are many reasons that movies get made. Pet projects or labors of love are not as common these days because of high production costs. But that’s exactly what this movie is – a pet project for Burton and Depp. They clearly have fun with the characters, and the film dallies ever so closely to the parody line. The initial set-up is brilliant and dark and ominous, leading us to believe this film will be in line with Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or Corpse Bride. Instead, the rest of the movie is more in line with Beetlejuice. Definitely not a bad thing – just different than what we were prepped for.

 Johnny Depp gives a wonderful performance as Barnabus Collins, the rich young man cursed by Angelique, the witch he spurns in love. His curse is to be turned into a vampire and buried alive. When his casket is discovered 196 years later, the world of 1972 is quite different than the one he left. He comically struggles to fit in and make sense of it all … not the least of which is his remaining family. At his beloved Collinswood Manor lives Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), the live-in child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and their recently hired nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote). While he was buried, the wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green) becomes the most powerful figure in town.  Ms. Green holds nothing back in her over-the-top jealous witch fun.

 Burton does a nice job poking fun at the 1970’s with comedy that won’t mean much to today’s youngsters, but will hit home with those from the era. The art direction and sets are terrific, especially Collinwood Manor. The music of the 70’s is used to comic effect, including a live performance by Alice Cooper. Michelle Pfeiffer does the best job at capturing the look and feel of the original series, but her daughter’s character (Moretz) takes an unnecessary turn as Burton tries to cram as much in as possible. In fact, the film is actually quite fun to watch, but is lacking real substance in the story department … not dissimilar to the original series.

 This is the 8th film collaboration between Burton and Depp. They make a wonderful team, and Depp has added another entertaining character to his Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Mad Hatter legacy. His movements and speech pattern are especially entertaining as we are mesmerized by his milky white complexion. His dialogue (written by Seth Grahame-Smith) demands attention and is both comical and majestic simultaneously. Burton’s tribute to the TV series includes cameos by four of the original actors: Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (pictured left) as guests at the ball. It’s a classy touch. Danny Elfman’s score is a bit overwhelmed by the use of numerous 70’s classics, and it was disappointing to hear The Killers version of “Go All the Way” rather than The Raspberries as the closing credits rolled.

Burton is one of the more visual directors and even though the story is a bit lacking, each scene gives us plenty to absorb. The ghosts are especially well done, as is the fishing town of Collinsport which was built just for the movie. It has many similarities to Bodega Bay, which film lovers will recognize as the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Lastly, Burton gives us another scene with the great Christopher Lee – this time as a boat captain caught between Angelique and Barnabus. Good stuff.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original TV series OR you enjoy Burton/Depp collaborations OR you “get” 1970’s humor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: in your mind, the 1970’s have as much relevance as 1870

watch the trailer: