New Delhi: Dark Shadows: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are snuggled warmly in their comfort zone in this chilly horror-comedy, their eighth collaboration as director and star, respectively, and their weakest by far. You don't need to know a thing about the 'Dark Shadows' TV series that provides the inspiration.
Tonally, thematically, visually, you've seen this movie before, with its oddball characters, skies in varying shades of gray and a foreboding sense of gothic mystery. It's actually a wonder that Depp hasn't played a vampire before; still, his long-undead Barnabas Collins, who's been buried alive for nearly two centuries and suddenly finds himself back in his insular Maine hometown in 1972, fits squarely within his well-honed on-screen persona.
He thinks he's quite the charmer, but he's actually a bit awkward, and that contradiction provides the main source of humor. Or at least, it's supposed to. The script from Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) allows its family full of weirdoes to shine, but too often is crammed with fish-out-of-water gags as Barnabas struggles to make sense of the time in which he's found himself.
He struggles to understand modern romance as he courts the family's delicate, wide-eyed nanny (Bella Heathcote) and tries to fit in by smoking pot with the local hippies. Ho ho!
'Dark Shadows' feels too languid, and bogged down as it is with an obsessive eye for costumes and period detail rather than offering anything resembling an engaging story. And by the time Burton finally puts his visual effects skills to their best use, in a climactic showdown between Barnabas and the witch who cursed him (Eva Green), it's too late. With Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter and Jackie Earle Haley.
PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. 116 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
The Dictator: In analyzing Sacha Baron Cohen and the array of offbeat characters he's created, it's clear that it's become a matter of diminishing returns.
In 2006's 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,' the observations of his bumbling, thoroughly inappropriate foreign TV journalist provided sharp, satirical insight into our prejudices and foibles. Three years later, 'Bruno' felt like a one-note gimmick, with his flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion correspondent merely trying to shock everyone with his flamboyant gayness.
Now, Baron Cohen is back with 'The Dictator,' his least-focused film yet, although it has an actual script compared with the guerrilla-style mockumentaries that preceded it. Baron Cohen stars as Admiral Gen. Aladeen, who has ruled the oil-rich, fictitious North African nation of Wadiya cruelly and cluelessly since he was 7 years old.
Aladeen oppresses his people from the comfort of his opulent palace, sleeps with movie stars (including Megan Fox in a cameo) and orders the execution of his underlings for the silliest of perceived offenses.
But when he travels to New York to make a speech before the United Nations, he finds he's been double-crossed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) and forced to survive as a commoner. Stripped of his trademark thick beard, Aladeen is rendered unrecognizable and ends up working at an organic grocery store run by the androgynous, ultra-politically correct Zoey (Anna Faris, who's nearly unrecognizable herself).
For a long time, it's hard to tell what Baron Cohen's point is in spoofing this type of despot: that torture and rape are bad? Could it really be that simple?
A speech Aladeen gives highlighting the benefits of a dictatorship hits close to home, but it's a long slog through hit-or-miss gross-out gags to get there.
R for strong, crude and sexual content; brief male nudity; language; and some violent images. 84 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Girl in Progress: The strong, sexy presence of Eva Mendes and the girlish perkiness of Cierra Ramirez can only go so far to make this forced mother-daughter dramedy tolerable.
It's a coming-of-age story that knows it's a coming-of-age story - as in, our young heroine is well aware of the conventions of this kind of tale and goes out of her way to manufacture various rites of passage to expedite her transformation from innocence to womanhood. Ramirez's Ansiedad literally creates a flow chart in her bedroom and spells out her strategy with her only friend - whom she'll soon cast aside, she declares, because it's a necessary step in the process.
Breaking down and sending up a specific genre is fine if the script is strong enough to get away with such cutesy self-reference, as in 'Juno' and 'Easy A.'
Director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Hiram Martinez don't go far enough, don't dig deep enough with these characters. They play it too safe, which makes 'Girl in Progress' feel like a slightly racier version of an ABC Family show. And the flat, overly bright lighting further makes it feel like forgettable television.
It certainly doesn't help that the two main figures are cliches. Mendes' Grace is the child in the equation, having given birth when she was just 17 and hopping from man to man and town to town ever since. Ansiedad - which means anxiety in Spanish - is the responsible one: Smart, studious and organized, she's left to scrub the sink full of dishes while her mom's out with her married gynecologist boyfriend (Matthew Modine, whose character doesn't have a single perceptible redeeming quality).
Do you think it's possible that, by the end, they'll both have learned some lessons and assumed their rightful roles?
PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content including crude references, and drinking - all involving teens. 84 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
God Bless America: Bobcat Goldthwait's targets are many and easy and obvious in this satire of everything that's wrong with the world today, but he hits them squarely and in bold fashion.
The former stand-up comic has carved out an intriguing career as the writer and director of dark, daring independent films. His last, 2009's 'World's Greatest Dad,' featured Robin Williams as a father who exploits his teenage son's freak-accident death for fame and fortune. Here, his anti-hero is a bit more familiar, a bit more of a cinematic type, but he still does some incredibly inappropriate things.
Sad-sack Frank (Joel Murray) is divorced, he's recently been fired from his job as a cubicle-dwelling drone and he might be dying. With nothing to live for, nothing to lose and an anxious fire burning in his belly, he decides to take out his pent-up aggression on the shrill, selfish, narcissistic idiots out there, as well as people who are just plain mean. He gets some unexpected help from a similarly angry and disillusioned teenage girl, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who becomes his sidekick on a bloody, multistate killing spree. 'God Bless America' has a whole lotta 'Taxi Driver' in it, and some 'Network,' and some 'Heathers,' and even some 'Kick-Ass.' But it still feels like its own entity through Goldthwait's specific voice.
He makes us do something we may not even want to admit to ourselves: acknowledge that Frank is right, and that maybe we're even enjoying watching these people get away with the slaughter. Much of that sensation comes from Murray's performance itself. Frank isn't unhinged or off-putting. He's a reasonable, even-keeled and seemingly intelligent guy who's fed up with the deterioration of decency in society.
R for strong violence and language including some sexual sequences. 104 minutes. Three stars out of four.