Darker and Better Than Expected: Steve Recommends Dark Shadows

When I was young all activity in our neighborhood would come to a halt at 3:00. It was time for Dark Shadows, so all of us kids would head for the nearest television. Occasionally, we would play the parts, with me as Barnabas, my brother as Quentin, and the other kids in various other roles. We even thought about putting on a theater production, but we were unable to come up with an adequate storyline. With those fond memories in place, I was excited when I heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were teaming up again to make a movie version of Dark Shadows. My enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the fact that I was among those who thought that their Alice in Wonderland was far less than wonderful. Then came the trailers that made it look as though their movie would simply be a spoof of the original series, filled with predictable fish-out-of-water situations and tired ’70’s jokes when Barnabas is freed from his coffin in 1972 after being imprisoned for nearly 200 years. Next, there was the onslaught of lukewarm reviews, by critics and fans alike, many complaining that Burton/Depp had as big a problem coming up with an adequate story as we did as kids planning our theater production. I was about ready to forgo seeing the movie on the big screen, waiting instead for its release on DVD. But, a small voice told me to give it a chance, and I’m glad that I did. It’s not a great movie, but my 15-year-old son (who had no prior knowledge of Dark Shadows) and I still had a great time.

Many of those with prior knowledge of the cult series seem upset that the movie doesn’t pay due respect to its predecessor. Sure, the show provided a fair share of gothic horror meat, but that was always served with an ample amount of cheese. I think I even realized that as a kid. The show was scary (for a young kid anyway), but it was also somewhat ridiculous and it was that combination that made it so much fun. I thought that Burton/Depp did a good job of capturing that combination in the movie and in that way they did stay true to their source material. However, that combination has led to complaints that they didn’t know what kind of movie to make. Was it a gothic horror story? Was it a camp comedy spoof? It is some of both, but that worked for me. The movie is actually darker in tone than the trailers would lead you to believe. The opening portion that tells the back story of how Barnabas became a vampire and ended up in the coffin has a gothic feel to it. It is no surprise that Burton gives this part of the movie a wonderful look. The purists may have preferred that the entire movie maintain that feel, but I’m not sure that would have made it a better movie. I enjoyed the humor. Some of it was corny. Some of it was stale. But there were plenty of good laughs.

That being said, it needs to be mentioned that the PG-13 rating should be taken seriously. This is not a movie for younger children. There is darkness in Dark Shadows. Barnabas is a vampire after all. The bloodletting isn’t as graphic as in Sweeny Todd, but it is there. There is also a somewhat surprising amount of sexual innuendo, so beware of your tolerance level there. Younger kids probably wouldn’t pick up on it, but it is quite evident. I personally felt that the oral sex encounter between Barnabas and Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bohnam Carter) was inappropriate for this movie. Nothing was shown, but the intention was clear.

Aside from that, there were many more things I liked about this movie than I disliked. As I said previously, Burton gave the movie a great look and fortunately didn’t go overboard with the ’70’s stuff. Depp gave some depth to the internal conflicts that Barnabas faced. It wasn’t a knockout performance. We’ve seen him play this kind of role before, but it was satisfying nonetheless. The rest of the cast was solid. Eva Green brought a sultry edge to the role of Angelique. Be careful if you cross this woman. She is a witch! Michelle Pfeiffer was fine as Elizabeth. I always enjoy seeing Chloe Grace Moretz, such a marvelous young actress. It was fun seeing Jackie Earle Haley as Willie. It brought back memories of seeing him as a young actor in The Bad News Bears in 1976! Helena Bohnam Carter brought a slightly different feel to her role than usual, but unfortunately she wasn’t given much to work with. I though her role, along with that of Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) were not written particularly well. One of the highlights for me was the cameo by Alice Cooper. They even made him look reasonably young. I recently had front row seats at a concert and I can tell you that up close he looks his age (64), but he still puts on a great show so see him if you get the chance. His two songs (“No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”) fit in well here, as did the other ’70’s songs used throughout the movie.

For the most part, Dark Shadows is fun, frivolous entertainment, but there were a couple of themes that are worth thinking about. The first is the importance of family. Early on Barnabas’ father tells him that family is more important than money and that theme remains an undercurrent throughout the movie. The other theme to ponder is the nature of love. Angelique claims to love Barnabas, but then curses him when she doesn’t get her way. Is that love? The movie also brings back that age-old question: does love mean never having to say you’re sorry. Actually, the love theme could have been highlighted more with greater attention given to the relationship between Barnabas and Victoria, but so be it. All in all, an enjoyable movie.

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The Christians of Pirates: A Reflection by Bill

This weekend the family and I went to see the 4th Installment of Disney’s famous Pirates of the Carribbean movie: On Stranger Tides. We are fans of the movies. Have been to see all of them.  And have differing opinions about the movies themselves.  I’ve loved all of them…my wife has not.  Though we both agreed that this movie was far better than the last one was.  Though I could go on and on on how good Johnny Depp was and how Ian Holm who played Blackbeard did a brilliant job…I thought I’d tell you about something else. Something you’d never expect to see in a Pirate movie…let alone an action movie…Christians!

Yes indeed…and not just one type of Christians either but two. Now… Be warned, maties, that what follows here may contain some spoilers. So…be warned!

The first kind of Christian is found tied to the mast…literally. This young man claims to be a missionary and carries a Bible with him wherever he goes. He speaks of finding the good in everyone and claims to be able to see it in Blackbeard himself. That is…until they meet and capture a fair mermaid who we discover isn’t quite as fair as portrayed in the cartoons. In this monstrous creature, this Christian finds beauty. He even sacrifices his life…not once but twice…to save her!  In the end he declares he has found the redeemable in her…and not in Blackbeard.

The second kind of Christian is showcased in the conquistadors who, upon marching to the Fountain of Youth, proceed to destroy it because “Eternal life is only through Christ alone.” The epitomy of ignorance and stupidity, these Spanish Christians know nothing of the fountain or its power.  They are men who take their faith very seriously, destroying the fountain, killing the English, and kissing the cross around their neck on their way out.

What struck me was rather profound in this film. I could almost hear it whispered in the wind…  Which Christian are YOU? Are you the one who sees beauty even in the monstrous? Are you one who can look at what is ugly in the eyes of the world and find good living there? Or are you a Christian who is right…and “knows” you are?  Are you so sure that God doesn’t have any other mysteries in the world?  Are you willing to destroy beauty to satisfy that faith?

A good question, for sure, for all of us.  For, as we see in the movie itself, the Christian who discovers beauty in the monstrous is the weaker one of the two, while the one with certainty of faith is the stronger.  The weaker one meets his end in the arms of the monster.  The strong one goes off victorious.  But who’s the one more like Christ?  And which one should we strive to become?

Treat Yourself to Chocolat This Easter: a Recommendation from Steve

One goal of this blog is to lead you to movies that deal with faith issues in ways that are enjoyable, enriching, and enlightening.  I have a recommendation that is quite appropriate as we move from Lent to Easter.  ChocolatChocolat takes place during the season of Lent.  It is sometimes dark, a bit bittersweet, but ultimately delightful.  Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter move to a small French village where she opens a chocolate shop.  Her past is cloaked in mystery.  She has an uncanny ability of matching just the right treat with each customer.  However, her timing in opening the shop is problematic.  The predominately (entirely?) Catholic population is supposed to abstain from worldly pleasures during Lent.  The mayor (Alfred Molina) considers it to be his responsibility to see to it that everyone does what they are supposed to do.  He is so controlling that he insists on previewing the young Father’s sermons before he preaches them (which, as a pastor, makes me cringe).  Things get more complicated when Vianne establishes a friendship with Roux (Johnny Depp), the leader of a group of Gypsies.  Everything comes to a head when Vianne plans a Festival of Chocolate for Easter Sunday.  This movie reveals how God’s grace comes to life in the ways in which we care for others, rather than in how closely we follow the rules.  The cast is wonderful.  Binoche is perfect, as sweet and tempting as her chocolates.  Depp’s role is definitely of the supporting variety, but he adds an intriguing edge to the movie.  This may be my favorite role in Molina’s long career.  You simply have to see what happens to him on Easter morning.  The cast also includes Judy Dench in yet another delightful performance.  If you’ve never seen this, treat yourself!  If you have seen it, then, just like the chocolate it’s named for, you’d like another taste, wouldn’t you? 

Steve’s 100 Movies

Check out the new page on our blog.  I’ve added a list of 100 of my favorite movies.  Simply click on the “Steve’s 100” tab at the top of the page.  Happy viewing!

Rango: a Recommendation from Steve

If you love westerns, you’ll love this movie.  Actually, if you love movies, you’ll probably love this movie, but maybe not.  It does have some drawbacks that I’ll get to later.  Rango pays homage to westerns, but also makes reference to many other movies, such as Pirates of the Caribbean (not a surprise given the presence of Depp and director Gore Verbinski), Star Wars (which is really just a western set in outer space, isn’t it?), Chinatown, and even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The animation is marvelous, rich and detailed, and, thankfully, NOT in 3D!  Although this is an animated movie, it is not for children, not younger ones, anyway.  My guess is younger children will alternate between being bored and scared.  If you bring a younger child to the movie, let me know how it goes.  Actually, if you see the movie, let me know how it goes.

This is not quite a love it or hate it kind of movie, but I can easily imagine a number of folks being underwhelmed by it.  As much as I liked it, I was not drawn in by it.  A plot line that includes a character trying to discover who he is and finding out what it truly means to be a hero will usually have me crying my eyes out by the end, but this one evoked barely a mist.  My 13 year old son knows me and knows movies well enough that I noticed him leaning over to look at my eyes at the point in the movie when the floodgates should have opened.  Sorry, no water (which is actually a key element in the movie).

A related problem is that, despite the requisite shootouts and chases, much of the movie is quite subtle.  The best of its humor is found in little details and tossed off lines.  I found myself laughing at times when the most of the nearly full theater remained silent.  I won’t claim greater intelligence or wit.  I think I just caught references that others missed.  I’m guessing I missed some, too.  For instance, when Rango first goes to the saloon, the camera shows the cards one of the poker players is holding, revealing an ace and an eight.  A wonderful little detail, if you know the place of aces and eights in western lore.  I look forward to seeing this again to see what else is revealed, but maybe I’ll rewatch a few of the old westerns first.

With those drawbacks in mind, I still do highly recommend Rango.  My son, who hasn’t seen many westerns, and didn’t even know what a spaghetti western is, still thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  Since seeing it, we have enjoyed imitating the voices and tossing lines back and forth.  This is one of those movies that I appreciate more after thinking about it for a few days than I did right after leaving the theater.  That, too, fuels a desire to see it again.