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Burton and Depp, together again in Shadows; Footnote is first-rate

by Mark Burger

Based on Dan Curtis’ ’60s TV soap opera, Dark Shadows is the seventh teaming of Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton and a labor of love for both, as they’ve expressed their desire to make the film over the years.

The love is evident in the finished film, in which Depp dons the cloak of Barnabas Collins, who lost his love Josette (Bella Heathcote) and was cursed to roam the Earth as a vampire by the vixenish witch Angelique (Eva Green), whom Barnabas scorned.

Two centuries later, Barnabas’ coffin is unearthed and unchained, and after feasting on some unlucky workmen, he returns to his ancestral home of Collinwood, which has fallen on hard times during the last two centuries.

In addition to acclimating himself to the warped world of 1972, Barnabas is reintroduced to both Angelique, who runs her own company in Collinsport but hasn’t forgotten him after all this time, and the reincarnation of Josette in Victoria Winters, a gravely beautiful governess with a few secrets of her own. In the world created by Burton, no one seems particularly dismayed — or surprised — by the vampire and witch in their midst.

As befits a soap opera, the plot twists and character developments (such as they are) occur with an amusing, accelerated regularity to suit a feature-length running time. This only adds to the film’s not inconsiderable, often considerably campy, charms. Whether this approach attracts or antagonizes “Dark Shadows” purists is as yet undetermined, but Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay is fairly faithful to its source.

The cast is a good one, clad in Colleen Atwood’s spectacular costumes: The ageless Michelle Pfeiffer’s in full grande dame mode as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Chloe Grace Moritz is the very picture of adolescent rebellion as tart-tongued teen Carolyn Stoddard and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s off-screen leading lady) as boozy psychiatrist Julia Hoffman, whose interest in Barnabas is more than strictly professional.

Dark Shadows is a put-on, and whether or not that attracts or dissuades audiences unfamiliar with “Dark Shadows” is equally undetermined as yet. Both together and apart, Burton and Depp have scored some blockbuster hits — but they’ve also scored a few unexpected misses, such as their best film together, Ed Wood (1994), which never found a theatrical audience despite considerable critical acclaim.

In any event, the affection that both have for “Dark Shadows” is unmistakable and often infectious. There are in-jokes galore, not just toward the old series (a few of the regular cast members, including the late Jonathan Frid, appear in a party scene) but toward the vampire genre in general. A cameo appearance by Christopher Lee — arguably the screen’s greatest Dracula — is unmistakable testament to the relish with which the filmmakers have approached the film, and the tone they’ve adopted. Even that die-hard rock ‘n’ roll ghoul Alice Cooper makes an appearance, playing himself.

In addition to its visual vibrancy, Dark Shadows also offers endearingly oddball characters, yet often doesn’t know what to do with them. With the exception of Barnabas, other characters disappear for long stretches at a time, and one or two are summarily dismissed from the proceedings without being missed in the least. That’s hardly a reflection on the performers, who play their roles with considerable relish. Especially appealing is Green, who’s fierce and fetching and can really rock a low-cut red dress.

The bloodletting and sexuality have been pared back — just — in order to ensure a friendlier PG-13 rating at the box-office, and the climactic barrage of special effects seems a concession to what passes for high-concept entertainment these days. Dark Shadows loses its way toward the end, but it’s still a giddily ghoulish, entertaining summer diversion.

Opening Friday, writer/director Joseph Cedar’s Footnote is a cleverly constructed study of family and career dynamics that is both a biting satire of academia and a resonant character drama. For those seeking an alternative to big-screen summer bombast, Footnote (original title: Hearat Shulayim) certainly fits the bill.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Ama), a Talmudic scholar of some renown, and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), who has followed his father into the same field and has, in a short time, surpassed his accomplishments. Eliezer’s bitterness is reflected in an early scene at a ceremony honoring Uriel. The camera never leaves Eliezer’s face, seething with jealousy. During the standing ovations, Eliezer is the first to stop clapping and the first to sit down.

When Eliezer learns he is to receive the prestigious Israel Prize, for which he has been overlooked for decades, no one is more pleased than Uriel. Finally, his father will receive the recognition he deserves.

Then comes the kicker: It’s a mistake. The prize was supposed to go to Uriel, but thanks to an office screw-up, it was Eliezer who got the call. This sets into motion a series of events and deceptions that escalate as the story progresses.

In order to preserve his father’s dignity, Uriel compromises his own ethics — and his future career — to ensure that Eliezer receives the award. Eliezer responds by giving an interview that essentially criticizes his son’s work, which (understandably) enrages Uriel. That Eliezer doesn’t know the true circumstances behind the award lends this effortlessly absorbing film a considerable amount of tension and suspense. Bar-Ama and Ashkenazi are excellent in their roles, and there’s a memorable turn by Micah Lewensohn as the petty, antagonistic Prof. Grossman, bent on preventing Eliezer — whom he’s always disliked — from ever getting the Israel Prize. He’ll have his proverbial pound of flesh, one way or another.

(In Hebrew with English subtitles)

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