The Week In Film: The Good, The Bad, And The Mind Game

By , Columnist

The first terrible blockbuster of the summer season opens up this week in the latest Johnny Depp/Tim Burton vehicle Dark Shadows. With The Avengers still raking in more money than any blockbuster should have the right to do, it’s hard to imagine such a turgid sort-of comedy dethroning the superhero mash-up, so Dark Shadows could very well become the first bomb of this summer as well.

However, if you are desperate to see a new movie this weekend there are still two interesting options, they are just smaller movies that you’ll have to seek out. The hunt will be worth it though, I can assure you that it will be less painful than sitting through Dark Shadows.

The Good: God Bless America 

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Putting his couch-fire comedian days behind him, Bobcat Goldthwait has rather quietly turned himself into one hell of an interesting filmmaker over the last decade. His movies aren’t the broad comedies one might expect from his 80s acting career, but very dark satires with a distinct (and deeply twisted) point of view.

His no-budget 2006 effort Sleeping Dogs Lie was a heartfelt romantic comedy that kicks off with some beastiality, while his 2009 Robin Williams vehicle World’s Greatest Dad was a strange film about a failed author who becomes a literary sensation by secretly writing a fake diary for his teenage son who committed suicide. Very odd movies indeed, but also very smart and darkly hilarious projects. They may have made a pittance, but quickly established a new career for the comedian as a filmmaker. Now he returns with God Bless America continuing his developing sick and satiric ways.

The movie stars Joel Murray (one of Bill’s many brothers) as a burned out middle aged failure discussed with the idiotic pop culture landscape. After a particularly crappy day involving losing his job and learning he has a brain tumor, the guy is about to kill himself. Then something changes.

He watches a particularly irritating spoiled teenager on My Super Sweet Sixteen, steals a car, drives across the country, and kills her. One of the girl’s classmates (Tara Lynne Barr) sees this happen and is so impressed that she convinces Murray to take her on as a partner for a cross-country killing spree that will turn them into the Bonnie And Clyde of trash culture. Pretty twisted stuff and Goldthwait never wavers from his vision, mining ever sick death for laughs and crafting some hilariously insightful monologues about the current pathetic state of American culture.

God Bless America is a gut punch satire that mixes shock and laughter with clever satirical social commentary. The lead actors could not be more perfectly cast with Murray combining deep pain and deadpan comedy, while Barr plays a hyper ADD teen with bloodlust. Goldthwait’s ever-growing skills as a visual storyteller shine through in some rather impressive set pieces. It’s a fascinating and incredibly entertaining romp for anyone who shares the writer/director’s cynical worldview, but unfortunately it falls apart a bit while barreling towards its conclusion. While the first half involving Murray’s breakdown and the beginning of the killing spree works perfectly, after that things get repetitive with endless speeches from the two leads about things they hate and increasingly tiring violence.

Now, there’s a suggestion that the audience is supposed to tire of the killers petty motives as the movie goes on, but that idea never comes together in a satisfying way and the director doesn’t have much to say as a satirist that he didn’t spell out more effectively in the first half. Still, God Bless America is far more intriguing, ambitious, and ballsy than most comedies out there and fits in well with the strange little collection of indies that Goldthwait has directed so far. It’s just unfortunate that he seems to have lost his train of thought at the midpoint or at least struggled to find a way to articulate his closing argument. As a result, this might not be the breakout movie that earns him the attention as a filmmaker that he deserves, but it works well enough that clearly that movie will come soon. He’s becoming far too interesting to flounder in obscurity for much longer, and as strange as it may sound, we should all be looking forward to the next Bobcat Goldthwait joint.


The Bad: Dark Shadows 

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Well, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp made a movie together again and we all know exactly what that entails. That’s kind of the saddest part about Dark Shadows, a movie that is a failure on just about any level. Whether working together and separately, Burton and Depp used to be two of the strangest and unique talents in Hollywood. Unfortunately they’ve become victims of their own success.

Burton still has the same look and Depp still cranks out the same deadpan oddball characterizations, but we’ve seen them do it so many times before that it’s becoming sadly predictable. Even worse, because they now command the biggest budgets (and paydays) in the biz, their scripts are depressingly mainstream and homogenized. There’s nothing subversive or unexpected to be found in Dark Shadows, even though that shouldn’t be the case based on the subject matter.

Based on an obscure cult gothic soap opera from the 70s, Depp play the vampire Barnabas, cursed into his undead ways by a spurned lover Angelique who dabbles in witchcraft. Barnabas spent two centuries buried in a coffin before awaking in 1972. He returns to his mansion to discover his distant relatives in disarray.

A secretive matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer) runs the home. Her useless adult son Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) takes up a bedroom along with his rebellious sister Carolyn (Kick-Ass’ Chloe Moretz) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath, who is haunted by his mother’s ghost). The damaged family also has full-time alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) on staff, as well as, a new governess who looks curiously identical to Barnabas’ long lost fiancée.

Barnabas decides to revive the family business, but has problems with an evil woman who now runs the town and happens to look exactly like Angelique. Somehow I don’t think that’s just a coincidence.

The biggest problem with Dark Shadows is that Burton doesn’t seem to know if he wants to make an affectionate homage to the original TV melodrama or a goofy comedy poking fun at the dated series and the 70s setting. Ultimately, he tries both and accomplishes neither. The laughs feel awkwardly crammed in a lazily written script, while the ensemble story doesn’t have enough time to develop, with every character short-changed on screen time other than Depp.

The whole thing sort of lumbers along with plenty of internal logic problems (sometimes Depp screams in pain when confronted with the slightest brush of daylight and other times he can go outside as long as he’s wearing sunglasses). Sure the visual design is delightfully Burtonesque and Depp remains as engaging as always, but neither attempts anything they haven’t done many times before. It’s lazy filmmaking and will probably be a bomb.

On the plus side, perhaps a few consecutive failures for Depp and Burton will shift them off the A-list and force them to chose small and creative projects that demand an attempt at something new. Or they’ll just keep continuing on the same path with increasingly disappointing results. As a fan of both talents, I’m hoping for the former. As a realist, I’m certain that they’ll reboot another pop culture relic soon enough.


The Mind Game: The Sound Of My Voice 

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Coming out almost as an antidote to the huge expensive spectacle filling up screens for blockbuster season, The Sound Of My Voice is one of those small, mature, idea-driven movies that are sadly all too rare in American filmmaking these days.

Directed by first timer Zal Batmanglij (who co-wrote the script with co-star Brit Marling), this is one of those mind-game think pieces designed to rattle around your head for days. The filmmakers toss around a collection of intriguing ideas without offering easy answers, crafting a deliberately vague movie that viewers have to dissect and work out for themselves. It sounds like a simple formula, but one that is sadly all too rare and even if The Sound Of My Voice is far from perfect, at least it dares to tickle the audiences’ brain.

Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius star as a pair of wannabe documentary filmmakers who decide to infiltrate a bizarre LA cult to try and discredit it on camera. Initially, it seems like that will be all two easy when they enter a suburban basement via a secret handshake with a hippy and are introduced to the statuesque blonde beauty of a leader (Brit Marling) who claims to be from the future. However, the more time they spend there, the more difficult it is to dismiss. Marling spouts out fascinating glimpses of the future and forms an intense emotional bond with Denham that is hard to ignore, but is also just as susceptible to saying something ridiculous to make her seem phony (in particular, she is at one point asked to sing a song from the future and replies with a cheesy 90s pop hit too good to spoil here).

That confusing line between truth and cult BS is further complicated for the audience with glimpses of a young girl building baffling towers in her bedroom and a mysterious cop or special agent who drives into town searching for Marling with unclear motives. Batmanglij never let’s his viewers off the hook, concluding on possibly the most confounding moment in the movie.

The level of enjoyment you’ll have with The Sound Of My Voice will depend entirely on how you feel about that style of storytelling. You’ll either be fascinated and try to unlock the mystery for days or leave the theater in a frustrated rage. Either way, Batmanglij has at least crafted an intriguing think piece capable of provoking those kinds of intense reactions and that’s not exactly common. Visually, he doesn’t bring much to the story, shooting in a mundane handheld indie style, probably out of budgetary necessity. He does get some fantastic performances out of the confused (and possibly devious) Denham and a spectacular sociopathic/empathetic turn from Marling as the cult leader.

Between this movie and last summer's Another Earth (which she also co-wrote/starred in) Marling has established herself as a compelling and undeniably gorgeous actress content to work outside of the system to create her own challenging roles/films. She’s certainly a striking screen presence, the only problem is that both films she wrote are so deliberately ambiguous it’s difficult to tell if she and the director actually worked out the meaning of their mystery or just created something deliberately confounding because they didn’t know what it meant either.

The Sound Of My Voice is so well made that it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt, but if she continues down this path I worry that her work will get very tired and repetitive, very quickly. Regardless, check this out if you hunger for a movie that you’ll be able to argue about all the way home from the theater. As good as The Avengers is, there certainly won’t be any discussion after that blockbuster that delves deeper than, “wasn’t it awesome when Superhero A totally kicked the crap out of Superhero B?”

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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