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Dark Horse & Dark Shadows

Two different directors that made their respective debuts in the 1980’s. They are roughly the same age(“Dark Horse” helmer Todd Solondz is 53, Tim Burton is 54 and “Dark Shadows” is his 15th feature film). One of them(Burton), directed a film(2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”)that grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The other(Mr. Solondz)has overseen seven films, only two of which have topped one million dollars at the box office. Both are familiar to their fans for having a “dark” edge to their work. And now, for the first time, in the same year, within a month of each other, they’ve both released a movie with the word “dark ” in the actual title. The end results are mixed.

Todd Solondz is an odd bird that has made a career out of exploring topics that most filmmakers wouldn’t even touch. Rape, suicide, pedophilia—and that’s just 1998’s “Happiness”! In 2002’s “Storytelling”, he had Selma Blair engage in a shockingly explicit sex scene—and then protested the MPAA, by blocking the act with a bright red box! You hear everything, but the visual is obstructed. It’s the kind of ballsy, creative choice that I adore. 2005’s “Palindromes” has eight different actors play the central character of Aviva—and they are of different gender, age, size & race(the most famous of which is the great Jennifer Jason Leigh). I mean, this guy is a maverick. And most people have no idea who he is. 2010’s “Life During Wartime” is a semi-sequel to “Happiness”—cast with a completely different set of actors. It may be the best and most mature work he has done. He doesn’t miss a beat with his latest film, “Dark Horse”. It concerns a 35(or so)year-old man named Abe(Jordan Gelber)who still lives with his parents(the iconic Mia Farrow and the priceless Christopher Walken), works for his father’s company(when he feels like working)and collects toys(the new millenium’s signpost for loser). He’s a not-so-lovable underachiever(or “dark horse”)who flies into rages and inflates his own significance and importance. The film opens with Abe totally blowing a set-up wedding date with an obviously off-kilter woman named Miranda(returning to Solondz’ circle, Ms. Selma Blair). Despite the disastrous event…Abe almost immediately asks Miranda to marry him! And against all odds she accepts! Of course, it’s obvious that neither of this duo is playing with a full deck, and almost nothing that follows suit goes as planned. And there’s also a wonderful turn from award-winning theatre actress Donna Murphy as Marie…an older receptionist at Abe’s dad’s company who may just be more than meets the eye. Then again—maybe she’s not. Similar to(but better than)last year’s “Young Adult” with Patton Oswalt embodying the “Abe” role, “Dark Horse” is smarter and sharper and riskier than that film. Todd Solondz still appears to be at his creative peak.

Tim Burton, on the other hand, has been artistically hot-and-cold of late. But, I’m holding out hope for him because his recent “Frankenweenie” could be called a return to form. Plus, he’s only 5 years removed from his masterful version of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”—possibly the best work of his career(only “Beetlejuice” and “Ed Wood” are serious contenders for that throne). I’ve never seen the soap opera from the 60’s and 70’s upon which the film “Dark Shadows” is based(at least I don’t recall seeing it). Apparently, a bunch of the main actors from the television show appear in a cameo(including star Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins, who passed away at the age of 87 a few weeks before the new film’s premiere), but I couldn’t spot them. The film is amiable enough(is it supposed to be?), and it’s kind of fun—although not very scary. The most delicious aspect of it is the appearance of the scrumptious Eva Green as the centuries-old witch, Angelique Bouchard. The film is kitschy, with songs from The Carpenters and The Moody Blues accentuating its time period and fish-out-of-water wanderings of Barnabas(a heavily made-up Johnny Depp). Part of me wants to pan it, but it looks so terrific, and it’s mostly sorta sweet, and it’s never not enjoyable—so I can’t. Also, besides the fact that the whole idea is right in Burton’s wheelhouse, I can’t understand why Tim decided to spend so much time and money on it outside of his nostalgia for the original show. But that passion is just enough. There’s a sloppy plot, but everyone seems up to the task of trying to make this thing fly(Oscar nominees Michelle Pfeiffer, Jackie Earle Haley and Helena Bonham Carter—a.k.a. Mrs. Burton—along with “it” girl of the young decade, Ms. Chloe Grace Moretz). Hey, it’s better than the mega-grossing “Alice in Wonderland”. And a lot lighter on its feet too.

Overall, it’s strong work from the reliable Todd Solondz. And more of the same from the uneven Tim Burton. But I never miss either one of their respective releases, different as they can be—they are also somewhat the same. In fact, I’m always intrigued by the dark shadows of Solondz’ array of characters, and Burton’s reboot of “Frankenweenie” has assured me that, regardless of the lukewarm critical reception for “Dark Shadows”, “dark horse” Tim should never be considered out of the running.    Grades:   Dark Horse: A-     Dark Shadows:  B-

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