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Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows starts out with a crisp recap covering how Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the scion of a Maine fishery and lord of the manor at Collinsport, was laid low by a spurned scullery maid witch (Eva Green) and cursed to a life buried in the ground as a vampire. 200 years later, he is unearthed by a construction crew building a McDonalds.  Very thirsty, he slaughters them all, and heads on down the road to his manor to reestablish the family’s supremacy.  So far, so good.  Burton’s economical use of flashback harkens to Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and this looks to be a lot of fun.

It is not.  Barnabas in 1972 is rather a bore, and Burton does just about everything you’d expect Dennis Dugan to do as a director.  Barnabas marvels at electricity, commands the demons in the TV to show themselves, reads and quotes from Eric Segal’s Love Story and watches Scooby Doo and observes that it is a very bad play.  None of it is funny.

Nor is any of it engrossing.  Green now runs the town as the executive of a lead cannery, low ambition indeed for such a powerful woman, and Barnabas challenges her – by opening a competing cannery.   In the meantime, Barnabas has a series of lame encounters with the surviving Collins’s, who include a droll Michelle Pfeiffer as the matriarch, a wasted Jonny Lee Miller as her brother, a couple of pointless kids (Chloe Grace Moretz and Gulliver McGrath), Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in psychiatrist, and Jackie Earle Haley as groundskeeper Willie.

There is also a love interest (Bella Heathcote), the boy’s nanny, for whom we have to suffer a second, less interesting flashback showing that she was institutionalized when she was a child because she commiserated with ghosts.

One gets the sense Burton knew this was a hopeless mess and found himself desperately piling on more and more visual wonder and absurdity in the hopes of saving the picture.  Hence, Barnabas has a ball for the town and arranges for Alice Cooper to perform (allowing him to say that she is the ugliest woman he has ever seen); Carter tries to transfuse the vampire blood out of Barnabas and then just decides to give him a blowjob; Barnabas and Green have a hate mating and fly about the room and up and down the walls, destroying everything, but at least breaking the tedium; and inexplicably, Moretz turns out to be werewolf.  There are also two musical sequences, the tactic of the lazy.

We eventually limp to a lengthy showdown between Collins and Green that is all Robert Zemeckis.  Statues come to life, ghosts intercede, and millions are spent wowing us with spectral visions.  All wasted, making you nostalgiac for the one-take, live-to-tape format of the original soap opera.

There is a hint at the end a sequel may be forthcoming, though with a production budget of $150 million and a domestic take of about half that, we may be spared.

Matt Damon is a law student, loyal to a childhood pal (Edward Norton). They’re poker players, but guided by law professor Martin Landau and gal with the heart of gold Gretchen Moll (all grown up in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Damon tries to walk the straight and narrow.

But just when he thinks he’s out, he’s pulled back in! Norton gets indebted to a brutal, track suit wearing Russian mobster (John Malkovich) and he needs Damon to square him.

I’m a huge fan of Matt Damon, and consider him wildly underappreciated.  He’s the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley and his villain in The Departed is the most interesting and challenging character in the picture.  His grieving fathers in both Syriana and Contagion are deeply moving, as is his shell-shocked soldier in Courage Under Fire.  I winced when I heard he was cast in the Glen Campbell role for The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, but I don’t know why.  He was the perfect blend of haughty and out-of-his-depth. 

But make him the hero and the feeling of somnabulence soon washes over you.  His Good Will Hunting was the most boring of his pals, Bagger Vance moved golf on film from tiresome to interminable, his Jason Bourne had you stifling yawns even while he was snapping necks, and Eastwood’s Invictus showed he could be pedestrian with a South African accent. 

Damon is a terrible choice for the hero in this picture.  He’s dull, knows it, and eventually, just gives up.  Damon’s blah performance is underscored by the fact that all the other characters are oozing and sweating and doing noir tough.   

Thank God for Malkovich. He’s the only thing that save this hackneyed tripe, and the reason for both stars.

Minsk?

Th signature achievement of the reign of John Hughes.  During his run, Hughes wrote and/or directed the following teen dramedies– Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, Uncle Buck and Career Opportunities.

Hughes offered a certain corporatized schmaltz and sentiment, and there are worse Hollywood epitaphs.  Hughes also provided a silly, devil-may-care ethos for affluent suburban high schoolers (Hughes grew up middle class in tony Grosse Pointe, Michigan) and he could deliver a bravura screwball scene, such as Ferris Bueller’s rock out during a Chicago parade or John Candy crashing a teen party in Uncle Buck. At the end of his films, a trite lesson was always learned, and opposites always came together for a hug of understanding.

Nestled in this treacle, however, was a bit of nastiness fully realized in The Breakfast Club.  A group of kids – the geek (Anthony Michael Hall), the jock (Emilio Estevez), the weirdo (Ally Sheedy), the hood (Judd Nelson), and the “it” girl (Molly Ringwald) – all must spend a Saturday in detention together.  It becomes a group therapy session, and the archetypes – initially hostile to each other – soon find solidarity in their hatred of the school administrator (Paul Gleason) and the fact that it appears they each have something in common – an oppression at the hands of their cretinous parents.  Nelson is burned by cigarettes (given the school, one presumes Dunhills); Hall is so pushed to succeed academically he has contemplated suicide; Estevez is also driven by his overbearing father, and his torture is so great he actually starts to punch himself ; and Ringwald explains her homelife thusly when asked if she can go to a party:

                            CLAIRE
I don’t know, my mom said I was [grounded] but my dad told me to just blow her off.
                           ANDREW
Big party at Stubbies, parents are in Europe.  Should be pretty wild…
                           CLAIRE
Yeah?
                          ANDREW
Yeah, can you go?
                           CLAIRE
I doubt it…
                         ANDREW
How come?
                           CLAIRE
Well ’cause if I do what my mother tells me not to do, it’s because because my father says it’s okay.  There’s like this whole big monster deal, it’s endless and it’s a total drag.  It’s like any minute… divorce…
                            BENDER
Who do you like better?
                            CLAIRE
What?
                            BENDER
You like your old man better than your mom?
                            CLAIRE
They’re both strict.
                            BENDER
No, I mean, if you had to choose between them.
                            CLAIRE
I dunno, I’d probably go live with my brother.  I mean, I don’t think either one of them gives a shit about me…it’s like they use me just to get back at each other.

 

Hall adds: “…I don’t like my parents either, I don’t…I don’t get along with them…their idea of parental compassion is just, you know, wacko!”

Then it is the jock’s turn:  “Um, I’m here today…because uh, because my coach and my father don’t want me to blow my ride.  See I get treated differently because uh, Coach thinks I’m a winner.  So does my old man.  I’m not a winner because I wanna be one… I’m a winner because I got strength and speed.  Kinda like a race horse.  That’s about how involved I am in what’s happening to me.”

Cue the tough, doing his own impression of his house:  “(as his father) Stupid, worthless, no good, God damned, freeloading, son of a bitch, retarded, bigmouth, know it all, asshole, jerk!  (as his mother) You forgot ugly, lazy and disrespectful.”

The jock rejoins, explaining that he taped a classmate’s ass together.  Why?  “I did it for my old man…I tortured this poor kid, because I wanted him to think that I was cool. He’s always going off about, you know, when he was in school… the wild things he used to do . . . it’s all because of me and my old man.  Oh God, I fucking hate him!  He’s like this…he’s like this mindless machine that I can’t even relate to anymore…’Andrew, you’ve got to be number one!  I won’t tolerate any losers in this family…Your intensity is for shit!  Win.  Win!  WIN!!!’  You son of a bitch!  You know, sometimes, I wish my knee would give…and I wouldn’t be able to wrestle anymore.  And he could forget all about me…”

Just to make sure we get the message, Gleason is the biggest prick in the world, an amalgamation of every insecure, bullying teacher in the continental United States.

There’s not a genuine moment in the picture nor a hint of deviation from its blame-shifting orthodoxy.

Hughes has always included some of this foolishness – the parents in Uncle Buck are too committed to their jobs, Alan Ruck’s father in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off cares more for his sports car than his son.

But The Breakfast Club’s attack on the cruel, neglectful parents is the primary theme of the picture and Hughes uses it to portray these five kids (three of whom do appear to be sh**heads of the highest order) as victims.

Look, children can be obnoxious, and teens doubly so, but there is perhaps nothing more unpleasant than encountering a self-pitying teen who bemoans his vaunted station just as he nears the age when lesser forebears were jumping into a hot LZ in Vietnam.

Hughes died recently of a heart attack.  He was a bit of a recluse in his later years.  I wonder if the stereotype of the suffering, whining rich kid he presented in The Breakfast Club contributed to his distress, either because he was prescient and had to live with it or he felt he had a hand in cementing the mold.

In a Vanity Fair piece after Hughes’s’ death, David Kamp wrote “As hoary as it sounds, The Breakfast Club spoke to a generation.”

Unfortunately, it appears they were listening.

All good things . . . Whit Stillman lost his patience and made a lazy film. Rather than allowing us to cozy up to his affluent young characters, understand their milieu, and then enjoy their erudite yet innocent banter, he dispensed with development and jammed the quirky kids right down our gullet.

A transfer student to a tony private liberal arts college is identified by a trio of society girls who decide she needs their counsel and guidance. All four negotiate a lampoon of a Seven Sisters campus replete with neanderthalic frat boys, sneering campus journalists, and neurotic coeds.

There is no subtlety to this picture. The characters aimlessly drift into various Stillman exchanges, waiting their respective turns to say something Stillmanesque, like, “Do you know what’s the major problem in contemporary social life? The tendency to always seek someone cooler than yourself.”

There is more cleverness than that, but little intelligence, warmth or draw. Like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which proved Kubrick probably had not had a sexual relationship in decades, Stillman seems too far removed from youth to master even a very broad comedy about young people.

And broad it can be. When one of the girls runs away to sort out her feelings after she finds her boyfriend has cheated on her, she goes to a low-rent motel. “Were you at a Motel 6?” her friends ask. “The Motel 4 – it’s even cheaper.”

Stillman has achieved bad Woody Allen. Not much fun, especially when he takes us out of Manhattan.

The film is often amusing, but the characters, never particularly realistic in Stillman pictures, are cartoons. Worse, every actor knows Stillman, and they’ve brought their Stillman A Game. The dialogue is stilted and even charmless. Oh for Chris Eigeman, who last I saw, stole a scene in HBO’s “Girls.”

The movie borders on a Whit Stillman spoof, though that really can’t be, at least until we get a proper David Mamet spoof.

He also cribs from his own work. A character has a fascination with a dance craze as social movement, just like a character in The Last Days of Disco. When you’ve only made 4 films, this is bad news.

It is no recommendation that it ends with two dance numbers.