Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.
Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.
As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.
There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.
Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.
I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.
At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.
Nate’s Grade: B
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels like Tim Burton’s X-Men franchise, and it’s just as awesome as that sounds. Burton has always had an interest in the outcasts and misfits of society and now he has his chance to leave an imprint on the ever-present superhero phenomenon. His own personal group of gifted youngsters is looking to form a funky family and fight against fearful forces that have their sights set on exploiting these special children or worse. It’s a natural fit for a man who has become a Gothic industry unto himself over three decades of peculiar and spooky filmmaking. This is Burton’s chance to flex franchise tentpole muscles with a subject matter perfectly attuned to his offbeat sensibilities, and watching the fabulous final product is akin to watching a master musician dive into Beethoven’s Fifth. This movie was flat-out delightful.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) is reeling from his beloved grandfather’s (Terrence Stamp) mysterious death. The old man loved sharing his stories about tending to the shape-shifting Ymbryne Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her wards, a group of children with special abilities including starting fires, controlling plants, invisibility, and being able to float lighter than air. On a trip to Wales to investigate grandpa’s stories, Jake discovers a time portal and is taken back to the WWII era where Miss Peregrine is waiting for him. She and her children relive the same day and will never age. They’re hiding from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his group of scientists who wish to hunt the children. Jake is tasked with being the new protector, as he is the only one that can see an invisible band of slender monsters known as hollows that feast on the children.
There’s a whimsical nature to the dark elements, and the script is rife with enjoyable payoffs and fun moments that cry out for a full visual immersion. This is Burton’s best film since 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I have a soft spot for that macabre musical), arguably best since 2003’s Big Fish, and maybe his most fun movie since his 90s heyday. If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be tickled by all the imagination and humor. I grew up on the cinema of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, directed by stop-motion maven Henry Selick but still very much a Burton film), so I’ll admit that seeing Burton in high form once again warmed my little mischievous heart.
You get a sense just how involved Burton was in the filmmaking and its details, the degree of passion and involvement, and also his commitment to being a dark movie intended for peculiar children and adults with macabre interests all over the world. I kept thinking that the 12-year-old version of myself would have adored this movie, never mind the 34-year-old version of myself who greatly enjoyed it too. This feels like a natural evolutionary step for children and adolescents who gorged themselves on the works of Edward Gorey and R. L. Stine. It’s not a significant spoiler but it’s something I feel you, dear reader, need to know in order to properly assess just how wonderfully morbid the movie can come across. There is an entire visual feast of a group of villains dining upon the delicacy of… children’s eyeballs. You read that right. It’s a silver platter piled high with severed eyeballs, and they get slurped down like it’s spaghetti. I could only cackle to myself at the audacity of the movie to embrace the fun of the darkness rather than hiding from it, mitigating it, trying to be delicate with tone. The villains want to return to a normal state that can only be achieved by consuming the eyeballs of peculiar children, and so they are hunted not for sport or prejudice but for eyeballs. That’s wonderfully squirmy, and it definitely affected me, an avowed cinema patron who gets extra squirmy with any onscreen eye trauma. There are other creepy and memorable moments, like a dead child being used as a ventriloquist doll and the slenderman-styled hallows creatures. The moments are plenty but they don’t choke the story’s momentum, which hums along with great imagination and lucidity.
There’s a lot going on with Miss Peregrine, and Jane Goldman’s (Kingsmen) screenplay juggles a lot of rules and world building without losing momentum. I was intrigued early and the movie would widen its focus, providing more texture and connection to the world in calculated doses. It was enough that I always felt like I was learning something while still being able to see how the pieces snapped together in retrospect. There’s time travel that has to be done at a very specific point, the rules of who can travel back in time to these bubbles of safety, the history of this specific day stuck in time, the non-linear history of the protectors, the fact that the bubbles are also teleportation hotspots, the history with Jake’s grandfather, the history of the Ymbryne and their powers, the powers of all the peculiars, dream prophecy, mad scientists and their peculiar ailments, the differences between the hallows and the predatory scientists, and also establishing the character dynamics of several lost children and a budding YA romance. It’s amazing that Goldman’s script is as understandable as it is considering all that heavy lifting. It’s not completely free of muddled plot points and some hazy explanations, but those instances are a clear minority to what works so effectively. I wanted to know more about this world, and once they added time travel and teleportation, I was hooked. I enjoyed the movie so much that I’m considering reading the additional books for my next freaky fix.
The acting ensemble is full of bright spots and none brighter than the new queen of genre gusto, Eva Green. I raved about Green’s magnetic performance in the considerably lesser 300 sequel. She was easily the best part of that movie and it suffered whenever she wasn’t on the screen. The same can be said for the too-long-in-the-making Sin City sequel. She was the best thing in Burton’s otherwise forgettable Dark Shadows feature. In short, this woman is incredible, and she digs into the vampy and ridiculous with the right degree of malevolence and glee. Green is a wonderful hostess into this magical world, and her foreknowledge gives her a caffeinated energy that makes her even a tad more peculiar. Her children are all fine actors who have uneven parts thanks to the unfair distribution of their powers. Not everyone gets super useful abilities. I felt sorry for the kid who projected his dreams from his eyeball especially during the third act scuffles. A mouth in the back of the head doesn’t seem very useful either. I enjoyed the idea that the invisible kid needs to be fully naked to be fully invisible, and everyone acknowledges this reoccurring fact with shoulder-shrug nonchalance. The standout amongst the peculiars is Ella Purnell as the winsome girl who will float away. She has an innocent and yearning quality that doesn’t sink her character. She’s more than just a love interest to Jake and Purnell helps channel great affection. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is expectantly highly entertaining as the lead villain and Butterfield (Ender’s Game) is perfectly acceptable as an audience surrogate into this wild world.
I was duly impressed with just about every element, from the structure of the screenplay and its precision with information and intrigue, to the level of acting, to the dark and whimsical tone, to Burton’s own peculiar particulars that fill out the film with adoration. It may sound corny but there is an affection woven throughout the film, for its dispirit outcasts, for their strangeness, for the ardor of telling a spooky story that can appeal to children without pushing away adults. There’s a care that’s been absent Burton’s other recent films, especially Dark Shadows, which left me bewildered whether Burton had any genuine fondness for the source material. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a haven for fans of the peculiar, Burton’s oeuvre, and those looking for a quality children’s film that has some bite. I can only hope for more fantastical adventures.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In 2007, the gory, shouty, beefcake-y action flick 300 came out of relative nowhere and took the world by storm, earning over $400 million worldwide and launching the careers of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen). The movie burrowed itself into pop culture, readily mocked and parodied along with its highly stylized action. So where to go next? Also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, though one that is incomplete as of release, 300: Rise of an Empire is a return to the same stylized excess that made careers. Except now seven years later, what once dazzled seems empty; visually alluring but hollow by all accounts.
Following the brave stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is pushing forward with his plans to subjugate the city-states of Greece. Long ago, Themistokles (Sullivan Stepleton) killed King Darius during Persia’s first invasion attempt. Xerxes has sworn vengeance since, goaded into action by his second-in-command, general Artemisia (Eva Green). She commands Xerxes’ mighty naval fleet, and she looks to “dance across the backs of dead Greeks.” The many city-states of Greece are squabbling over an appropriate response; Themistokles argues they should unite, while others contend for surrender to Xerxes. Themistokles rallies what armies and ships he can to meet the Persians on the sea and prevent the overpowering invasion.
The difficulty with a follow-up to 300 is that Snyder’s highly stylized original has been copied and pasted so many times by cheap imitators, so what’s new? The film’s visual style follows the original closely, all those gauzy panoramas and human bodies lovingly showcasing in slow-mo the ugly beauty of bloodshed and violence. The rippling muscles, the glistening sweat, the geysers of blood; it’s all here and in displayed in fawning 3D detail. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I noticed that every campfire scene was littered with annoying floating embers. However, Rise of an Empire manages some pleasant surprises because a majority of its action takes place at sea. This is a movie devoted to ancient maritime combat, and that’s pretty interesting. The scope of the action is much larger this time, with far more than 300 soldiers in play. The naval battles are brought to life with Hollywood excess but they’re still fairly exciting and fun to watch. The action is well orchestrated, usually easy enough to follow, and suitably thrilling, with each sequence differing from the last. The pumping score by Junkie XL works as a strong driving force with pounding percussion and horns (check out “History of Artemisia”). There are also less nutty monstrous evil henchmen this go-round as well, which helps bring a needed sense of internal reality to all the fantastical action. There are no goat people and blade-handed executioners this time. I don’t think anybody is going to take the movie to task for historical accuracy, but it’s appreciated all the same. Though who’s going to hire Blade Hands now? The guy has a very limited skill set for a workplace.
Plot-wise, the first 300 film was an underdog tale, a group of proud warriors fighting against overwhelming odds eventually giving their lives for the cause. It’s an early chapter in the Noble Lost Cause storytelling playbook, meant to inspire. It’s a Greek Alamo. The problem is when you pick up the story after the Noble Lost Cause. Now the Greeks have to fight the whole of Xerxes’ mighty forces with their own, and while it’s still an underdog story at its core, watching one huge army fight a huger army doesn’t have the same entertainment value. That may be why the film also works as a prequel. There are three flashbacks to fill out the first act’s worth of table setting: the initial war with Persia, Xerxes, and Artemisia. We get storylines happening concurrently with Leonidas and his men, though Gerard Butler declined to reappear in the film. You definitely miss his animalistic fire and screen presence. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s much of a story here besides a big-screen version of Stratego, where the Greeks move, then the Persians, now everyone is dead or defeated. That’s a glib oversimplification, yes, but the plot boils down to an increasing series of episodes on how the Greeks repel the Persian invaders. Without greater characters and storylines to populate the downtime, it all becomes soulless exercises in CGI bloodshed and the vapid chase after whatever is cool looking.
The big problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, despite the ever-present sameness of it all, is that the heroes are bland and the villains are charismatic, which makes it easier to root for the bad guys, which I heartily did. The heroes are chiseled from the blandest of hunks of one-note characterization, with only three real characters being formed. There’s Leader Guy a.k.a. Themistokles, who wants to unite Greece into one power. There’s Father, a.k.a Scyllias, who has a slight scar on his jaw to better identify him, and then there’s his Son, a.k.a. Calisto, who wants to fight. Ladies and gentlemen, that is it, which is all you get when it comes to your heroes. What a shameful pittance. There aren’t even flamboyant supporting characters in their ranks. The heroes are boring, and the father/son storyline plays out exactly as you’d expect, which is a reverse from the original 300. These are not characters you’d follow into uncertain danger. These are characters leftover after all the good ones have been prematurely slain. These are some lackluster leftovers.
Now, let’s take a look at the enemy camp, namely with chief antagonist, Artemisia. It helps leaps and bounds that she is played by the wholly gorgeous Eva Green (Casino Royale, Dark Shadows), and it’s even more helpful that Green gives it her all, sinking her teeth into the campy villainy. Artemisia is a fierce sword fighter, no-nonsense general, and overall badass supreme. She kisses decapitated heads, is not above fighting topless, and wears wicked outfits with spikes and all sorts of goodies. Every time she departs a scene, you’re left counting down the minutes until you see her again. She’s so delightfully entertaining, chomping at the bit for vengeance and Greek blood. She’s also a woman commanding warships in 500 BC, not exactly a time that recognized women as equals. Another wrong move on the filmmakers’ part was illuminating Artemisia’s back-story. We learn via flashback that Artemisia watched her family get raped and slaughtered by the Greeks. She was sold into sexual slavery at a young age, imprisoned in the bowels of a Greek ship, repeatedly raped for years. Then when these horrible men had had their fill, she was dumped onto an anonymous road and left to die. After seeing this sequence, what person isn’t going to welcome Artemisia? Does she not deserve her vengeance? I was emotionally engaged with her from that moment onward, and so I rooted for her to burn Greece down and vanquish our lame heroes.
The rest of the actors on screen are rather terrible. The beefy men on screen could have used some extra work on their underutilized acting muscles. Stapleton (Gangster Squad, TV’s Strike Back) is absent any notable charisma to distinguish him from the stubbly-bearded pack of screaming male heroes. Santoro (The Last Stand) has a certain dour intensity to him, though he spends much of the film watching from a distance. The rest of the cast doesn’t even merit mentioning because the film treats them like featured extras rather than genuine characters. Only Lena Headey’s (TV’s Game of Thrones, The Purge) handful of scenes will grab your attention. It’s ironic that a film that glorifies the heroics of male soldiers, as well as the their chiseled physiques, and the only two women in the entire film are easily the most memorable and entertaining people. Dump the dudes.
While it offers enough thrills and visual power to satisfy a trial viewing, 300: Rise of an Empire is just too empty a spectacle to warrant anything beyond a cursory glance. Director Noam Murro follows Snyder’s blueprint to the best of his abilities, soaking the screen in blood, rippling flesh, and visual grandeur, but the movie goes into convulsions when somebody is forced to talk without kicking people in the face. The plot amounts to little more than a series of attacks played out like stages in a video game. While the original is no masterwork, at least it had characters that we could gravitate toward. Absent any hero worth rooting for, it’s no wonder that Green and her memorable villainess reign supreme. She is excellent, sexy, and has a reasonable motivation for her vengeance. If it had been her movie, 300: Rise of an Empire might have developed into a worthy spectacle anchored by its fiery heroine. Alas, the actual movie is just a Saved by the Bell: The New Class of half-naked men going off to CGI battle, and that’s just not enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Dark Shadows was a daytime soap that aired for only a brief period of time as far as soaps are concerned, 1966-1971, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. The supernatural soap featured vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, entangled in high-stakes drama and romantic excursions – it was the Twilight of its day. Director Tim Burton and his attached-at-the-hip collaborator, actor Johnny Depp, were fans as children and have kicked around a big-budget big screen version for years. Now that Dark Shadows hits theaters, you’ll be left wondering whether they really ever liked the original show or secretly despised it.
In the 1770s, Barnabus Collins (Depp) is the son of fishing and canning magnate in colonial Maine. He has a fling with Angelique (Eva Green), one of his family’s servant girls, and unfortunately for him, the gal is also a witch in her spare time. She curses the Collins family, killing Barnabus’ mother, father, and the woman he loves. She then turns him into a vampire, riles the villagers into mob mode, and Barnabus gets trapped in a coffin and buried for good.
Two hundred years later, a construction crew unearths an old coffin and out pops Barnabus from his prison. The world is a very different place. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is running the Collins family manor and canning company, which has fallen on hard times. A rival canning company is snapping up fisherman contracts, and this company is led by none other than the same ageless Angelique. Elizabeth tries to conceal her distant relative’s unique “condition” from the rest of her family, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), grieving the loss of his mother, moody 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). The Collins family also has a new hire, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who looks strikingly like Barnabus’ lost love from 200 years ago. He becomes smitten with the new lass, who may be the reincarnation of his lost love. That’s enough to rev up Angelique’s wild sense of jealousy, as she tries to get her long-desired man and destroy anyone that stands in her way.
Is this ever one ghoulish mess of a movie. It never settles on a tone; is it supposed to be a larky tongue-in-cheek send-up, a Gothic melodrama, a dysfunctional oddball family comedy? What is this supposed to be, because whatever it is, it isn’t entertaining. Oh sure, it’s entertaining in a, “Where the hell is this going?” kind of way, but so is being kidnapped by a drifter. The movie feels like it has a box filled with ideas, and every so often it just shakes up that box, reaches inside, grabs one and says, “Let’s give this a try.” The screenplay, credited to author Seth Grahame-Smith (Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), is awash with half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The live-in doctor, played by the second stalwart of the Burton Repertory Players, Helena Bonham Carter, is a hoot. Carter (The King’s Speech) has got an edge to her and an interesting dynamic with Barnabus, but sadly her storyline is tied up far too quickly. The character of Victoria is a rather interesting one, a girl who could communicate with her ghostly former relatives, who happen to look just like her. The gal was sent to a mental asylum by her parents and escaped, compelled to come to the Collins mansion. Why in the world wasn’t she the movie’s protagonist? That is a far more compelling perspective than a goofy vampire who speaks all old timey. Seriously, the Barnabus stuff is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, lazily commenting on the times. There is no joke that is too obvious for this movie (Barnabus inquires why Carolyn has no husband; Barnabus is fascinated by a lava lamp; Barnabus thinks Alice Cooper is an ugly woman – sigh). A lot of the shapeless narrative would be forgivable if the movie was just funnier. Barnabus is just not that fun of a character. His anachronistic verbiage gets dull when you discover that seems to be the movie’s one joke. You may start tuning him out like I did.
The movie feels like a collection of subplots and no main storyline to gather traction. We’re told that the youngest Collins, little David, is enamored with Barnabus, though considering we’ve only seen the two together in like one previous scene, this seems like quite a leap. Unless David has gotten particularly skilled at hiding behind rocks, we haven’t seen any of this. The entire character of David and his sleazy father could be eliminated and they would only minimally affect the story. And then there’s the late revelation that one of our characters has a hidden secret identity, a revelation that fostered no setup. When the character looks into the camera to explain and ends with a curt, “Deal with it,” it’s like Grahame-Smith himself is speaking directly to the audience, mocking it for hoping that the movie would actually do a good job of setting up and paying off character development and relationships. Stupid audience. Why can’t you just be happy with all that neat Tim Burton set design?
The final melee between the Collins family and Angelique keeps reminding you of the dashed promise of the flick. Angelique, in her witchy withiness, summons dark forces to make statues come alive. Well, sort of. They flail their arms a tad. And then she makes the walls bleed. Well, sort of. The dripping blood stops after just a few inches from where it began. If you’re going to make the house bleed, I want Shining-level torrents of the red stuff. The tonal inconsistency, matched with the muddled plot and scant character work, makes for a pretty frustrating bore of a movie.
You could usually count on Depp (Alice in Wonderland) for at least committing himself to another bravura weird performance, but the material fails him. He’s caked with alabaster makeup, given claw-like hands thanks to additional knuckles (why…?), and he’s trying his best to transform a list of peculiarities into a character, but like most things concerning the movie, it does not coalesce properly. I actually think the most entertaining actor in the movie is Green (Casino Royale). Part of that might be my hormones revved up from her frequent cleavage-baring outfits as the vampy villainous (no pun intended). There’s not much to her role but at least she has fun with it, bringing an admirable level of energy while her peers remain laconic, content to submerge into the 70s scenery. She shows a nice flair for comedy heretofore unseen. Strangely, Green adopts a slightly raspy voice that sounded like an imitation of, none other than, Helena Bonham Carter. If Burton’s note to his film’s young, frisky, sexy antagonist was, “Sound more like my wife doing an American accent,” then I think we’ve butted into something personal best left between husband and wife.
Ultimately, I have no idea who this movie is going to appeal to. The fans of the original soap will surely not be pleased with the jokey, tongue-in-cheek manner that Dark Shadows treats its source material. Fans of Burton’s stylized, dreamy, Gothic fairy tale visuals will find the film tedious and a poor waste of the man’s talents. Even the casual Depp fan will probably find the movie mostly unfunny, weird, and boring. The tonal whiplash never settles down, and the plot is replete with half-developed characters, ideas, and plot points. It just seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s not the best way to tell a story. Not even Burton’s visuals or Depp’s performance can save this movie. Dark Shadows is unquestionably amongst Burton’s worst films (2001’s Planet of the Apes debacle takes the crown), made all the more inexplicable by the fact that Burton and Depp are self-described fans of the TV show. Maybe we all have different definitions of “fan” that I am not privy to. This movie deserves a quick death.
Nate’s Grade: C
Beloved by many and condemned by others, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, is widely popular. New Line Cinema placed an expensive wager in adapting the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, with the express desire of having their own Narnia-style franchise. Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) was hired to adapt and direct the enterprise. The final tally had the budget somewhere around $180 million, add in an extra $60 million for marketing, and New Line was pretty much banking their studio’s fortunes on this would-be fantasy blockbuster. Trouble is, there is not built in audience for a Golden Compass movie. The books are more popular overseas and less than ten years old, so there hasn’t been enough time to build a sense of lore or greater anticipation, like with Narnia. As of this writing, it looks like The Golden Compass is going to tap out at about $70 million domestic haul, and while I have no doubt that figure will be much higher overseas, I do not think it is a coincidence that soon after The Golden Compass fizzled New Line buried the hatchet with Peter Jackson and started the process on engineering two Hobbit movies. You see, that’s guaranteed money in the bank unlike The Golden Compass.
On a parallel Earth, people walk around with their souls in the form of animals known as daemons. These creatures serve as conscience, servant, and protector. Until a child reaches adulthood the daemon will often change form until it settles on one creature, be it a cat or a hawk or a toad. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered an inter-dimensional hole around the Arctic Circle, and a magical substance known as Dust is seeping through. The all-powerful Magisterium feels that they know best for others and that people need to be told what to do, and they most certainly do not appreciate Lord Asriel’s scientific discovery. They have decided to silence him permanently as he travels to the Arctic.
Meanwhile, Lord Asriel’s niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is investigating poor orphans that seem to be vanishing around her school. The Magisterium has taken an interest in Lyra and “asked” that she accompany Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an icy woman with a wicked monkey as a daemon. She has great hopes for Lyra, but soon the child realizes she is a prisoner in the care of Mrs.. Coulter and that the Magisterium is responsible for abducting children and conducting experiments to remove their daemons from them forever.
She escapes and heads to the North, and finds help amongst nomadic people known as Gyptians, an air cowboy (Sam Elliott), a group of flying witches led by Serafina (Eva Green, as lovely as ever), and a scarred and grumpy polar bear named Lorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) who has been exiled from the Ice Bear kingdom after losing in one-on-one combat with the cruel current king, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane). Lyra leads this motley crew to the Arctic where the Magisterium is keeping the absconded children for experiments.
Most noticeably absent is a sense of wonder. The Golden Compass kind of plods along, and when new magical creatures are introduced they’re done so with such matter-of-fact complacency. If they can’t pretend to be impressed then why should I? There’s a difference between playing the fantastic straight and just shrugging it off. The structure of the screenplay doesn’t help things much. Many subplots feel rushed or grafted on to a lumbering plot that collects minor characters like static cling; it isn’t until the climax that the whole slew of people combines forces. As a result, some subplots are far more interesting than others, like the world of armored polar bears. This imaginative diversion, like much of Golden Compass, reveals itself as simply a side step in a plot littered with nothing but side steps. Just as soon as the storyline has started it’s pretty much over and the movie has moved on to new ground.
The movie fluctuates between the silly and the confusing. The hardest part of any fantasy film is establishing the rules and laws of this new realm, and The Golden Compass seems a tad overburdened in trying to explain its world. Weitz’s adaptation is heavy in lugubrious exposition without the benefit of drawn-out explanation. Often some character will explain something briefly and then the audience is left to orient themselves with this new morsel of information. Cosmic dust, alternate dimensions, Magesteriums, daemons, Gyptians, polar bears, witches, prophecies, it’s a bit much to decipher for an adult let alone a child (I’m convinced that the sluggish pace and confusing jumble of a story will totally bore kids). The golden compass itself is a very awkward creation and really has little purpose or connection to the events of the film. First off, in order to pose a question a person must align three hands to varying pictures to best describe what they will ask (how many pictures do you need to ask where you left your keys?).
The book’s anti-ideology stance has been severely watered down and replaced with half-hearted euphemisms. Gone are any overt references to the church or Christianity, instead the movie couches its ire in vague authoritarian terms, a giant entity that wants to separate children from their daemons (souls) to purify them from Dust (sin). I do find it amusing that the villainess is a tall, thin blonde woman named Mrs. Coulter, though this seems more coincidence than indignation. There is a brief scene in the film where a bunch of frowning, older white men (one of them Christopher Lee) sit around a table clucking their tongues and talking up their evil scheme; that’s about as provocative as the movie gets. But by sanitizing the book’s provocative nature, Weitz has produced a movie adaptation that feels too silly to be taken at face value and too bland to be taken as anything but.
From an effects-driven perspective, The Golden Compass is admirable even if few of the CGI works manage to truly dazzle. The special effects are sturdy for a tale with such demands as talking animals and winter icescapes. The bear battle is the film’s highlight but a climax involving a sprawling brawl, which visually indicates a person’s death by a daemon vanishing into a cloud of gold smoke, is fun to watch. Sadly, an ongoing sense of fun or enjoyment is missing from most of The Golden Compass. It feels more dutiful when it should be wondrous and timid when it should be exciting.
The Golden Compass is a less spirited fantasy adventure that skimps on what makes the genre special. It has no sense of awe and wonder, and even worse the movie is structured in a rush with little time for clarification and growing characters. The film is crammed with cheerless exposition and the bulk of the plot is built around a lame rescue attempt. Weitz has sanitized the intellectual and religious provocations of the book to appeal to greater mass audiences, but by doing so he’s robbed the audience of substantial subtext. The Golden Compass even ends on kind of an unresolved, Fellowship of the Ring, “Oh, it’s over” kind of way, finishing before even reaching the climax of the first book it’s based upon. I have read that the studio shot these scenes, and you can even see them in the original trailer and access them via the video game tie-in. They wanted to save them for the start of a second movie. It may be painfully obvious to most, but allow me to say it: there is not going to be a second movie. The Golden Compass is a slightly entertaining but mostly charmless fantasy film. Someone figure out the right three pictures to ask, “How could we have made this movie better?”
Nate’s Grade: C+
This is very different James Bond and it’s about time. The Bond film franchise began all the way back in 1962, and it essentially became the blueprint for the modern action movie. Quips, alluring women, exotic locations, car chases, colorful villains, and spoiled plans for greed or world domination. But even if Bond got the ball rolling, the action movie became its own insatiable beast, thanks to the likes of studio bean counters and the ubiquitous uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The 90s Bond revival followed suit. The movies became more about extravagant fireballs, throwaway characters, and preposterous scenarios. After 2002’s Die Another Day, where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond drives an invisible car through a melting ice palace caused by a solar laser from space run by a yuppie playboy who really had the DNA of a North Korean dictator… well, you don’t need to be an expert to figure out that something was rotten in that state of Bond.
The Bond films have great history to them, but let’s not get overly romantic here; a majority of the James Bond movies are outright crap, especially the ones with Roger Moore. There were jaunts into space, men with metal teeth, Timothy Dalton, a title called Octopussy, and Christopher Walken trying to have California fall into the ocean. Let’s face it, half the movies are rubbish. Someone, anyone try and tell me the redeeming qualities of Moonraker. The last good-to-great Bond movie was Brosnan’s debut, 1995’s Goldeneye. The Bond franchise has been in desperate need for a makeover. This is it.
The producers went back to Bond basics. The long-time producers had the rights to every Ian Fleming novel, except for Casino Royale, which was turned into a cheesy comedy lampooning Bond instead of competing with the franchise. Several decades later, we’re given a serious adaptation of Royale, Fleming’s introductory book about the secret agent that rewrote movie rules. The new Bond has a splash of Jason Bourne in him and seems more tightly wound and hard-boiled. He doesn’t have time for trivial decisions like shaken or stirred. “Does it look like I give a damn?” he barks at the bartender.
Bond (Daniel Craig) is more thug with a badge than a suave secret agent. He’s just risen to double-O status and his boss, M (the incomparable Judi Dench), doesn’t feel that he’s ready or can be trusted. But then, he is the best poker player MI5 has. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is entering into a high stakes poker game worth millions of dollars. He’s playing with the money of African warlords and terrorists and has promised them a great return on their investment. Bond is assigned to gather information and stop Le Chiffre from financing terrorism. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is a representative of the bank that will be sponsoring Bond in the card game. It’s up to her to keep tabs on Bond and make sure her bank?s money is wisely invested.
Now this is what action movies should be like. Casino Royale is a terrific ride with great action sequences, great intrigue, strong acting, and some wonderfully exotic locations. The movie, like Bond to Vesper, sure feels the need to prove money was well spent. The story is smart and filled with sharp dialogue, perhaps thanks to co-writer Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash). This is Bond dialed back, stripped of fancy gimmicks and gadgets and left to battle with his wits and his brutality. This is a meat-and-potatoes action movie without irony or frills. It’s serious about its business and business, let me tell you, is good. Casino Royale is monstrously entertaining.
There was a lot of grumbling when Craig was selected as the next actor to fill the 007 shoes. Some scoffed at the idea of a blonde Bond, as if hair color had shot to the top of the list of important qualifiers. I wrote this about Craig after seeing 2005’s Layer Cake: “This man is a modern day Steve McQueen with those piercing blue eyes, cheekbones that could cut glass, and the casual swagger of coolness. We may never see Craig sweat but he still expresses a remarkable slow burn of fear so effectively through those baby blues.” This man is the perfect candidate for a Bond reboot. He has a boxer’s face, those wonderful eyes, and a sculpted body that will take many a breath away. But even better, Craig is likely the best actor that has even been tapped for 007. Connery will always be the sentimental favorite, and rightfully so, but Craig imbues his Bond with startling amounts of emotion and vulnerability. In the dramatic black and white opening, his first kill isn’t clean and quick, it’s long, drawn out, messy, and leaves Bond shaken, not stirred. His relationship with Vesper gives him even more opportunities to feel and be tortured, sometimes literally (Note: a naked torture sequence is far too intense for children, especially those with their genitals on the outside). Craig gives a rich performance. When he’s chasing bad guys you see the determination of his running, the anguish on his face. When he’s flirting with women you can practically feel the smolder. This is a far more pragmatic Bond and Craig is the right actor for the job.
Green leaves her mark as one of the best Bond girls in the franchise. Usually the Bond women are either respites for fine-tuned lovemaking, or damsels wronged by the eminent domain of evil. She’s sinewy and sexy in a way more film stars should be, and her acting is on top. She has a nice moment where she sits in the shower in shock after being witness to the reality of murder. She showed a lot of promise, and about every inch of herself in The Dreamers, and gives a commanding performance on her biggest stage.
Director Martin Campbell has some history with the Bond franchise, restarting it with Goldeneye. He’s a pro at orchestrating action sequences, and there are some doozies in Casino Royale. The beginning sequence is a thrilling foot chase inside a construction zone. Bond’s target, a bomb maker, bounces off walls, swings along ledges, and motors around beams and ladders like he was a trained monkey. It’s an exciting French style of acrobatics called Parkour, and it was used to dizzying effect in this year?s District B13. The chase just goes from one level to another, and the stunts are brutal and of the death-defying variety. It’s a showstopper opening. An airport sequence is also quite memorable, as Bond races to stop a bomb from reaching an airplane. Campbell has taken a hint from the Jason Bourne spy movies and made Bond more reactionary to his surroundings. Many fight sequences feel tense and un-choreographed, even though we know that isn’t the case. When this Bond gets into scuffles you don’t know whether he’ll make it out unscathed. Campbell keeps the pace steady and the visuals crisp. Best of all, Campbell allows the audience to fully see what’s taking place. There’s no MTV-style edits. The film feels totally in control like the best action movies do. You’ll feel battered, bruised, but exhilarated all the same.
However, Casino Royale is not a perfect action movie. It feels way too front-loaded; all the big action sequences seem to occur within the first hour. The film then settles in for a climactic game of… cards? I’m not one who fell into the spell over Poker on TV the last few years. It just doesn’t seem that thrilling to me to watch one guy turn over his cards and then wait for another to turn over their cards. There are only so many combinations to be had, and hoping for Bond to have a flush to beat out four of a kind is just not high drama. It’s luck. The poker scenes seem to last longer than they should, as does the film as a whole. This is on record the longest Bond movie ever, clocking in at 144 minutes. It’s a whole hell of a lot of fun, but the tacked on ending in Venice seems like an entirely different movie slapped together for closure. The villain is somewhat weak. He’s given a nifty visual item, weeping tears of blood, but it is meaningless. The plot also gets too convoluted for its own good, with double-crosses, triple-crosses, and finally a reveal as to who the Big Bad in Charge was and I could not for the life of me remember who he was. Seriously, there are so many characters and faces shoved in that the producers could throw us a bone. All I’m asking for is some clarity while I chow down on my popcorn.
Casino Royale is the Bond movie Ian Fleming would have paid to see. Craig and Campbell have given new life to a teetering franchise. This Bond is much scrappier and more cunning. The action sequences are slick and the movie is fun and engrossing, plain and simple. In the closing seconds, when the familiar notes of the James Bond musical theme come alive you will feel like the journey has been earned.
Nate’s Grade: A-