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Reviews, Works In Progress & Thoughts

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)
Four times in American history, assassins have determined the fate of its chief executive. The first was in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated days after the end of the Civil War by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. That Booth was part of a conspiracy, one that evolved from kidnapping to assassination, is beyond doubt. Just who may or may not have been behind him, acting as his puppetmaster as it were, has led to speculation and conspiracy theories. Helping launch modern debates on the topic was Sunn Classic Films' 1977 release The Lincoln Conspiracy and its purported "true" version of events.

Watching it, it's an odd film. As a historical drama, it's not much up to much. For much of its ninety minutes of running time, The Lincoln Conspiracy moves from one scene with strained dialogue and exposition to another. Never once does any of the film's dialogue feel organic, like a conversation that might occur in reality (even by the standards of the time at which the film's events take place). The acting from the film's cast doesn't help either, even with John Anderson once more playing the role of Lincoln.  Also, while a dramatic work, the filmmakers felt a need to employ a narrator quite frequently, breaking one of the cardinal rules of storytelling that it's important to show, not tell. Indeed, that could sum up the film as a whole.

As a production, the film's not much better. In its favor is that it benefits from using surviving Civil War-era locations (including some in Savannah, Georgia judging by the credits) to portray various locations in and around Washington. Beyond the cosmetic, however, it's little more than a competent piece of work. There's an almost 1970s TV movie-of-the-week feel to it from the acting to the direction and cinematography. How much of that is down to a low budget (and the film looks like it had one), it's hard to say. On the other hand, it's clear that the filmmakers didn't have what they needed to bring their theory about Lincoln's death to the screen.

As for the theory it espouses, it's a convoluted one. It involves the historical accepted figures plus not one but THREE separate plots to kidnap Lincoln, with actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth managing to straddle most of them. Indeed, it seems that Booth manages to latch onto one particular plan to carry out the President's murder, leading to a cover-up by others involved in the plot. Things get even murkier when James Williams Boyd, a spy with a striking resemblance to the actor, gets involved. Many of the names involved are familiar ones to those aware of the assassination from Booth and Boyd to Secretary of War Stanton and Lincoln himself. Told well, it could have been intriguing if implausible.

Instead, it's something else entirely. The ultimate problem of the film is that unlike say Oliver Stone's JFK and despite copious amounts of expository dialogue coupled with narration, the film never clearly gets its points across. It's a muddled mixture of revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and clunky dialogue brought to life with cheap production values. And yet, The Lincoln Conspiracy is ground zero for modern conspiracist thinking on America's first Presidential assassination with its theories showcased on Unsolved Mysteries and Brad Meltzer's Decoded among other places.

In the end, the film is a curiosity. Just not a very good one.

Oliver Stone's JFK

Long-time readers of this blog will know of the nearly decade long birthday tradition I have. That every year, on the eighth of November, I review a documentary or docudrama I've recently watched. Well this year, seeing as both I watched it over the weekend with my best friend Emily and it's becomeing relevant again due to the release of various previously classified documents, there was only one thing I could review. Indeed, I'm surprised I somehow hadn't done it before given that it's one of my favorite films of all-time. So here goes...

Few events in American history stand out quite so heavily as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Besides the shocking nature of the event with the American president being gunned down in broad daylight in a major city came the psychic scars caused by unanswered questions due to an alleged assassin gunned down before he could ever be tried and an official investigation that was at best botched and, at worst, a whitewash. Perhaps no single film or work of fiction has done more to raise questions about the event than Oliver Stone's 1991 JFK with its exploration of events through the perspective of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who brought to trial of the one alleged conspirators.

Stone, along with his co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar, craft a peculiar film around the biggest unsolved mystery in American history. Indeed, JFK as a film owes much both to political thriller films such as Z (which also focuses on the assassination of a government official with multiple versions of the same events seen from the perspective of witnesses brought forth by a determined investigator) and the murder mystery genre. The only difference is that this is a murder with far more scope, far more suspects, and far more consequences than your garden variety murder mystery. It's a tale that takes in a large portion of still recent history and an era in time before distrust in government would reach its zenith (and perhaps has never truly subsided) and when terrible things very likely lurked in the shadows.

Incidentally, anyone convinced that Stone's vision is overly paranoid should seek out the published script book for the film with dozens (if not hundreds) of annotations. The film's vision, while leaning perhaps a bit far in cases, turns out to be far plausible a vision than it's often given credit for. The result is at nightmarish with its implications, so perhaps it's no surprise that the film led to an act of Congress to release more of the classified files related to the assassination which is still being released even as I type these words.

To bring the story to life, Stone assembled a first-rate team both in front of and behind the camera. Borrowing another trope from some of the better-filmed murder mysteries, the film has an all-star cast of actors in roles both big and small. Leading it is Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who becomes both investigator and the audience's guide into the twisty world surrounding the assassination. Costner, though quite different from the real Garrison who was taller and more built, was nevertheless a perfect piece of casting as the intelligent everyman armed with a large amount of dignity and a determination to get to the truth no matter where it leads. Costner's performance plays up all of these elements and even the dark side of Garrison's obsession while also creating someone the audience is willing to follow for the three-plus hours the film runs for.

The rest of the film's cast is equally as strong. The Garrison investigation turns up a number of fascinating characters, any of whom could very well the protagonist of their own film, ranging from Tommy Lee Jones' quietly menace as Clay Shaw, Joe Pesci's eccentric David Ferrie, John Candy as the ever-shifting lawyer Dean Andrews, and Kevin Bacon as Willie O'Keefe (a composite character, one of several the film uses) among many others. There is also Gary Oldman's Lee Harvey Oswald is not only uncanny in his resemblance but a fascinating portrait in its own right, presenting many different versions of one of modern history's most enigmatic figures. The film also has its fair share of strong female performances from Laurie Metcalf as an assistant DA to Sissy Spacek as Garrison's wife torn between supporting her husband and being drawn into the world he's uncovering. That's without mentioning the effective cameo appearances from the likes of Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau or the scene-stealing monologue delivered by Donald Sutherland as the mysterious insider known as X. Few films can claim to have perfect casts but, for my money, JFK is one of them.

Those behind the camera are the other half of the equation. Stone's team includes superb costume and set designs from Marlene Stewart and Victor Kempster which gives the film its sense of time and place. Yet as cerebral as the film is, a thinking person's thriller in many ways, it's also an immensely visual work with Stone often relying on the editing of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia as well as the stunning cinematography of Robert Richardson. The three of them together weave in footage both archive and newly shot together into a tapestry that captures the viewer's eye as well as their brain. Underpinning it all is John Williams' score, perhaps one of his most underrated, that plays up not only the sense of unease but also the sense of what was lost all in the space of the film's opening titles and haunting themes elsewhere in the film. It's a remarkable tapestry all around.

Indeed, that is a nice summary of the film as a whole. Stone's JFK is, in essence, a murder mystery. One whose stakes have a firm basis in reality and based on a crime whose particulars are still hotly debated decades after the fact. With his cast and crew, he created a fascinating piece of film-making that crosses genres and time, presenting an incredible and paranoid vision of an earth-shattering event. Except that, if what's in the film is even half true, has deeply disturbing implications. That thought and the fact that the film led to documents being released speaks to the power of film-making and JFK as a film in particular.

Guesting On The Spybrary Spy Podcast Review of ‘Becoming Bond’

The episode of the Spybrary Podcast I recently guested on talking about the Hulu docudrama Becoming Bond is now up on Youtube for those who'd like to give it a listen!

The Fire Next Time (1993)

Miniseries have a tendency to come and go, especially those of yesteryear. Until a friend of mine mentioned this on a Facebook comment a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of the 1993 CBS miniseries The Fire Next Time let alone seen it. Having been intrigued by its premise and seeing some familiar names in the cast, it seemed worthwhile to seek it out.

The premise of The Fire Next Time is intriguing given that it was first broadcast nearly twenty-five years ago as I write these words. Set in 2017, the series focuses on the Morgan family led by Drew (the ever reliable Craig T. Nelson) and his estranged wife Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia) living on the Louisiana gulf coast with mother nature going crazy thanks to climate change. As a result, parts of it were to be quite prophetic ranging from a Katrina like hurricane, immigration issues on the Mexican border, wildfires in California, droughts across the country, businessmen profiting off tragedies, and even something similar to proposed carbon taxes. The three hours or so that this runs for include something neat pieces of world building with details being thrown in here and there on the over all world situation and things within the United States.

The production is largely solid as well. Craig T. Nelson is his ever reliable self as the head of the family, perfectly suited to the role as a man fighting to keep his business running and family together in a world going mad. Bonnie Bedelia does well as his wife and the rest of the cast does well with the material they're handed with Richard Farnsworth as Drew's ailing father coming across the best. The supporting cast is large with characters coming and going though there are some standouts including Jurgen Prochnow as Drew's former business partner Larry Richter, Charles Haid as the unscrupulous Uncle Buddy, Sal Lopez as a Mexican migrant, and a young Paul Rudd in a supporting role. The production values are strong all things considered including a version of 2017 that isn't our own but plausible under the circumstances laid out, the occasional nice directorial flourish from Tom McLoughlin and a score from Laurence Rosenthal centered around a memorable theme. All of which helps the miniseries.

Because despite everything in its favor, The Fire Next Time often tends to be more melodramatic than anything else. Despite the prophetic nature of its plot and some nice pieces of world-building, the script from James S. Henerson never quite lives up to its promise. Henerson more often than not gives into cliches to bring the story to life which rather undermines the strong ideas and solid production values. It also doesn't help that the good first half eventually gives way to a wheel-spinning second half that is devoid of drama for the most part. Indeed, if this had been a single ninety minute TV movie based on the first half it would have been considerably better but instead it is a three hour miniseries that is too long for its own good.

What can be said for The Fire Next Time then? It is a surprisingly prophetic miniseries that filled with solid performances and production values but which suffers from a cliched script that never manages to create a gripping drama despite all those things. Perhaps it is a curiosity from a bygone age but as a curiosity it's worth a watch.

Hidden Figures

Real-life events have often proven to be fertile ground for filmmakers. Even when events are apparently well documented, such as NASA and the American space program, they have made for fine pieces of film-making as they can sometimes find the little known stories and illuminate them. Hidden Figures is a prime example of this as it takes viewers back to the early 1960s as America pushed headlong into the Space Race and the role that a group of female African-American mathematicians, effectively tasked as human computers, played in that effort.

In telling this story, the film brings together a strong cast. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson play the three leads of the film who find themselves facing different tasks and circumstances as they work at NASA's Langley Research Center. Of the three it is Henson who perhaps gets the largest role of the three as Katherine Johnson, whose work becomes crucial to the success of early Mercury missions. Monáe's performance is solid as well, playing a woman struggling not just with the racial elements of the time but also institutionalized sexism as well. Yet out of the trio the best performance might come from Spencer who is an effective scene stealer throughout and does not surprise me in the least that she has received an Oscar nomination. Together, these three women (both as characters and as actresses) anchor the film solidly.

The supporting cast is solid but nowhere near as strong. Out of them, it is perhaps Kevin Costner as Space Task Group head Al Harrison (a character inspired by the real life Robert Gilruth) who stands out the best as an authoritative but sympathetic boss. Many of the performances though ranging from Jim Parsons' NASA engineer, Kirsten Dunst as the trio's immediate supervisor, Glen Powell as John Glenn , and Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson all suffer not so much from their actual performances but from often feeling like little more than cardboard cut-outs filling out the film. Which is a shame in a way as some of them feel either superfluous or wasted in their roles with some such as Powell (who is way too young to be playing the forty year old astronaut) perhaps being mis-cast. For what they have to work with though, they do good work.

Outside of its leading trio, the film has other things to recomend it for. The film does an excellent job of taking the viewer back to the early part of the 1960s, a time of both optimism and yet still rooted firmly in the past. This is something the filmmakers work to their advantage with the costumes and sets especially feeling straight out of the period. The film makes strong use of archival footage over CGI effects to bring the actual missions to life though the mixture of the two together is well done so that it takes being familiar with the actual footage to spot the difference. The music score, despite coming from three quite different composers, suits the film well ranging from simple but highly effective orchestral pieces from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to songs by Pharrell Williams. Combined with the direction of Theodore Melfi, the film becomes a strong mix of elements that take the viewer into the period while also telling an engaging story.

None of which would be possible without the script. Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder are to be commended on taking a tale that takes in the early history of NASA, the math of space flight, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, plus life in the 1960s south to create a script that not only is informative but engaging as well. They do so by injecting a good deal of humor into the film and I have to admit to being surprised by the amount of times I laughed over the course of the two hour running time but also tension. It says something that I heard sharp intakes of breath during the climatic sequence involving Glenn's mission as the film manages to make a tense sequence despite the audience presumably knowing that the astronaut lived into old age before passing away recently.

Yet the script, and the film itself truth be told, does tend to delve into unsubtle melodrama that undermines it at times. There are scenes that, even sitting in the cinema, feel entirely invented such as confrontation involving Katherine Johnson and her white colleagues and a scene that immediately follows it. The film is also guilty of some historical and technical errors as well from a newscaster's line of dialogue about the Mercury capsule “achieving an altitude of 116 miles per hour” to the lack of figures such as NASA rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun or condensing NASA's facilities down to the point that less knowledgeable viewers might think that Mercury mission control was in Virginia (it was really down in Florida). It is something that perhaps undermines the film somewhat though not to a fatal extent.

On the whole though, I can forgive the writers and the film for its occasional lack of subtlety and over-simplifications. Hidden Figures tells a little known story into a highly engaging way thanks to a combination of strong lead characters, first rate production values, and a script that takes what could have been a heady combination of historical events and infusing it with humor and tension. It is a fine example of what a historical drama can do: illuminate the past for a new generation and inspiring them.

Operation Avalanche: Conspiracy Thriller As Documentary
Normally the "we faked the moon landings!" conspiracy theory makes my blood boil. That is even more true when people go out and make 'documentaries' trying to prove it to actually be the case. That said, the idea had produced some good fiction in its time including the 1970s conspiracy thriller classic Capricorn One. Added onto that list as well is this film, a indie made period thriller with a neat twist.

That neat twist is that it looks and feels like a documentary being made in the 1960s. Operation Avalanche which claims to be a documentary following a group of CIA recruited filmmakers led by Matt Johnson (playing a fictional 1960s version of himself) whom, upon discovering NASA is behind schedule, convinces his bosses to let him and his team stage the Apollo 11 moon landing. If nothing else, it is a great way to bring to life an old idea.

In fact, it is the documentary style nature of it that is what make this film. Johnson and many of his lead actors are playing fictional versions of themselves and (as the DVD extras reveal) there was a large amount of improvisation of dialogue going on, something which is evident. Evident not in a bad way but in that it means that there is always the sense that these are people in the heat of the moment. The reactions to things are never over the top but range from the comedic to the panicked, all of which are believable as the events taken on an increasingly darker tone.

Yet the film has more going for it than just a good idea. Despite being indie made, the film features some of the finest period production values for a film set in the 1960s that I can recall seeing in recent memory. There are cars, clothes and yes even sets. It is sets that are among the most impressive elements of the film including the construction of the one that represents the Eagle lunar module on the Sea of Tranquility. As a NASA buff, I was impressed by the level of detail put into the film's NASA focused elements right down to recreating moments from a couple of later Apollo landings. It's impressive to say the least.

The highlight of this film though might be in its cinematography and effects. The film has the look and feel of 16mm 1960s film in its look, containing the right amount of grain and an occasional washed out look to it. The camera-work as well plays well with the found footage format but also manages to avoid much of the shakiness that has become an all too frequent part of the genre. Indeed, it is to the credit of the filmmakers that they find just the right balance to make it believable but also not a frustrating (and for some even nausea inducing experience). The effects meanwhile are subtle and impressive, often finding ways to put the actors into real-life NASA footage including an impressive sequence in Mission Control where the footage works brilliantly with the scene playing out. The most impressive sequence of the entire film might well be the CIA filmmakers visit the set of Kubrick's 2001 in the UK complete with Stanley Kubrick himself. It's something that sets this film apart from both many indie films but conspiracy thrillers as well.

All of which makes Operation Avalanche an impressive piece of work. It's an incredibly well made piece of work combining a period film with a thriller plot told in a documentary style. That also helps make the outrageous premise believable, presenting an (on the surface at least) idea of how it might have happened. If you enjoy conspiracy theories or the found footage genre, this is well worth a watch.

Just remember, it ain't real...

Animating The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke (that is the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland) is considered one of the definitive Batman/Joker stories ever told. It's a controversial one to be sure as well with what Moore chose to do to one of its supporting characters. So when it was announced that it was, at last, receiving a screen adaptation, fans couldn't help but be excited. When the news came that one of the definitive Batman/Joker performance teams (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill) were playing those roles, it was even harder to be excited. So much so that despite being slated to go straight to DVD, it received a successful yet brief cinema run as well. Was it to prove to be as successful as its original comic counterpart?

Yes and no.

Let's look at the 'no' side of the equation first, shall we? The problem is the film's opening half hour which focuses heavily on Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong). Instead of feeling a natural extension of the original Alan Moore tale (which takes up some forty five minutes of screen time), it instead ends up feeling tacked on like the longest ever James Bond style pre-credit sequence. Worse, it has not a single connection to the actual plot and does nothing to really develop the characters it does involve except in trivial ways. The perfect example being a rooftop confrontation between Batman and Batgirl that ends up with a legitimate "what was the writer thinking?!" moment. That said, it's not bad and wouldn't have necessarily been a bad short film on its own but glued into Killing Joke, it pales by comparison.

That said, once it got beyond that opening half hour and into actually doing what it sets out to do, it works and works bloody well. Writer Brian Azzarello turns the original Moore (who for his own reasons has been uncredited on a number of works adapted from him for years now) into a full functioning script laying out the narratives of the Joker wounding Batgirl, trying to drive Gordon insane, and confront the Batman while also looking at the day that made the Joker into the man he is. It's also played out just as Moore wrote it and Bolland illustrated it in all of its unsettling glory.

All of which is anchored by the ever excellent DC animated production values. The voice acting is everything would hope for it to be from Conroy's Batman to what might very well be Mark Hamill's best performance as the Joker. Whatever else one cay say about the film, Hamill shines as one of the definitive Joker performers gets to bring to life perhaps the definitive tale of the character and Hamill does it wonderfully from one line to the next, showing the tragedy that comes to underline the character. The supporting does well though those in the first half hour do as well as might be expected with the material they're handed including Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon, Strong's Batgirl, and Robin Atkin Downes as Detective Harvey Bullock. It's a solid cast to say the least.

The animation is also solid. While it never quite manages to catch the same realistic and neo-noir tones of Bolland's illustrations, it does presents something that is a close match for it. Even better for comic fans, the film recreates some of the iconic panels from the original comic splendidly. For the most part, the DC animated films have had good animation and this one is no exception to that rule.

In a way though, despite what the film does successfully, it feels like it doesn't quite live up to expectations. In large part, that comes down to the underwhelming opening half hour which stands in stark contrast with just how good the remainder of it is. In a sense then, it's a a shame they stuck that prologue onto it because this might have been among the best comic screen adaptations otherwise. What it is instead is nearly 2/3 of one and 1/3 of something that's watchable but not as good as it ought to have been.

Hacksaw Ridge
Real life has always proved to be fruitful ground for filmmakers, dating right back to the beginnings of film. Stories set at times of war, especially those with a heroic angle, have been particular favorites. In a way, Mel Gibson's latest film Hacksaw Ridge follows in that tradition as it recounts the story of Desmond Doss who earned the U.S military's highest award for honor and bravery without ever firing a shot. It's a visceral and at times inspiring tale.

The film is anchored by its lead actor, British actor Andrew Garfield (best known for the title role in the two Amazing Spider-Man movies). Despite being British, Garfield plays the role of a young man coming from Appalachia exceedingly well right down to his accent. Garfield is the film's focus and he plays the various aspects of Doss well from young man in West Virginia to someone who goes on to do something truly incredible. In fact, Garfield's performance is superior to the material he sometimes has to work from but nevertheless remains an often effective and even moving performance.

Having said that, now seems a good moment to talk about the script from writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Bringing true stories to the screen is, as I said above, part and parcel of what Hollywood does. That a good deal of the actual events make their way to the screen is something that is commendable though the film's first half sees it engaging it a significant amount of hyperbole and cliché regarding Doss' life before the war as well as his treatment by his Army unit, including a court-martial sequence that is largely a work of fiction. That the film has a strong faith based message to it is clear, though not out of place given both its subject better and it being a real-life story. That the film tries to cite this as part of an ongoing 21st century political narrative of "a war on Christians" come across quite hollow and does the film no favors.

Indeed the film really finds its feet when it moves on to firmer territory: the Battle of Okinawa and the attempt to take the titular Hacksaw Ridge. Though it seems to condense things down to a single day and night, by and large this part of the film faithfully tells Doss' truly incredible efforts during one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater of war. Not that events needed much hyperbole because the facts alone are incredible enough. Gibson as director presents a visceral portrait of battle, one that is free of more traditional war film heroics but most certainly full of 'the fog of war' and which finds moments of absolute terror as well. For all the faults with the first half of the film, it's latter half makes for compelling viewing.

Though it isn't always easy viewing. This portion of the film is not for the faint of heart as Gibson, who showed he was not afraid of gore in his two earlier outings as director, used it to full effect here. Here though it is used in service of conveying an incredible real story from the comparative recent past and which helps to convey the magnitude of what Doss went through. It speaks to the skills of not Gibson as director but to the stunt, effects, and make-up teams in bring this harrowing vision to life.

Indeed from a purely production side of things, the film is solid. The production design and costumes do a very nice job of recreating America on the brink of and during the Second World War even before it gets to the battlefield. The cinematography of Simon Duggan is something to behold across the length of the film as it takes in not just the inherent natural beauty of Appalachia but half a world away to the bombed out island of Okinawa. It's also interesting that the film doesn't put much reliance on CGI effects or at least on all too apparent ones. The results make for a solid recreation of the era as well as a well produced film.

That phrase could very well sum up Hacksaw Ridge as a film. It's a well produced piece of work with a compelling and believable performance from its leading an. Though the film's first half often delves too far into the bags of hyperbole and cliché, the second half of the film becomes one of the most visceral and inspiring pieces of film-making in recent memory. it may not be a perfect film but it is definitely a good one that is more than worthy of viewing.

Dark Shadows (2012)

Translating television shows to the big screen is part and parcel of popular film-making dating back to the 1950s. So it was no surprise that Dark Shadows, the legendary Gothic horror soap opera that ran from 1966-1971, came back to the big screen in 2012. Unlike the earlier low-budget films made after the show's demise, this one was to be a big budget star vehicle from director Tim Burton with a cast that included Johnny Depp. On the surface, it looked to be a wonder mix of a director and star getting the chance to bring a mutual favorite of theirs to life once more. What it became instead was something of a mess.

To be fair, translating any long running program to the big screen would be a challenge. Never mind if that series ran for something like 1200 episodes like Dark Shadows did while covering everything from vampires to witches, werewolves, and ghosts not to mention usual soap opera tropes like family secrets and twisted relationships. Yet for its opening twenty-odd minutes, Burton and his writers (John August and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter writer Seth Grahame-Smith) seem to do it as they quickly introduce the series most famous character, the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Depp) and set the stage for the film's main setting: the Maine town of Collinsport in 1972. For these opening minutes, it's a wonderful Gothic film full of atmosphere and menace as Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) is introduced to the Collins family and their home. It doesn't last very long though.

Sadly, once Depp's Barnabas reappears, the film can't figure out what it's meant to be. Is it an adaptation of the TV series? Is it a Gothic horror film? Is it a parody of the series? Instead of picking any one of those (which, under Burton's direction, would undoubtedly have been interesting), the script tries to be all three. For nearly ninety minutes of its running time, the film moves along from one genre to the other. Worse, it often does so within the same scene which leaves scenes feeling even weirder than one might normally expect within a Tim Burton film. One never knows where to laugh, cringe, or be scared and the result is a film that is immensely unsatisfying to say the least.

It also plays merry havoc with every single performance in the film. Depp's Barnabas has some good moments but the ever shifting nature of the film, especially the attempts to make it comedic, never give him anything really solid enough to play with. The havoc really takes its toll on the usually reliable Eva Green as the villainous witch Angelique who instead gives a performance that, outside of her appearance in the film's opening minutes, becomes overplayed to the point of lacking either menace or humor. The rest of the cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jonny Lee Miller are all effectively wasted as nobody gets anything solid to do in the film with Carter and Miller in particular playing parody versions of their TV counterparts. Of the entire cast, Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters fares better but largely because her character becomes the audience's in-road to the Collins' family and by her becoming Depp's love interest, something that allows her to shine ahead of almost everyone else. It's a potentially good cast let down by a poor script.

Yet the film does have some positive attributes. The aforementioned opening minutes are superb with the combination of script, Burton's direction, and production values creating a wonderful atmosphere that the film then throws away. Even in the lackluster parts of the film, the production values are first rate though. The 1972 setting of the film is interesting with 1970s fashions conflicting nicely with the Gothic mansion. Indeed, Collinwood itself is a wonderful piece of pastiche Gothic design though Burton has always had that on his side. There's a number of nice cameos as well including some members of the original Dark Shadows cast that eagle eyed viewers might spot. If one was to rate the film on style instead of substance, it would be pretty good.

Yet for all of its aesthetic attributes, Tim Burton's film of Dark Shadows is a mess. The biggest fault lies in with a script that can't ever quite make up its mind what kind of story it's trying to tell which in turn leaves virtually the entire cast out to dry. The opening minutes hint at a film that could have been good but instead it feels like a trailer for a film that should have been made but wasn't. Bigger isn't always better and this film is a perfect example of how not to bring a TV series to the big screen.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an odd beast of a film. Coming on the back of the successful trilogy of films that re-established the series on the big screen in the wake of The Motion Picture, it could have been the biggest film of the franchise. Instead it has become seen as a failure, a film that somehow failed to live up to expectations and that nearly killed the franchise on the big screen. Is that fair though to the film itself?

Short answer: not at all.

Yes it's a film with problems. Perhaps the most noticeable of which is its special effects. The films had brought Star Trek a long way from it sometimes iffy TV effects but Final Frontier saw that trend sputter a bit. Compared with previous films in the series which had lower budgets, the effects here are unconvincing including the model shots that had been a point of pride for the film series. Even the film's more original sequence are a let down such as the sequence when the Enterprise enters the Great Barrier, a sequence which could have potentially rivaled the incredible imagery of V'Ger in The Motion Picture. Instead the sequence becomes a series of unconvincing model shots in which the Enterprise looks pasted onto the screen as lighting bolts and clouds swirl around. The problems with the special effects go farther as well as they ultimately robbed the film of its intended ending and instead left it with an ending that feels anti-climactic. It's a disappointment to be sure and one that makes the film feel inferior to its predecessors.

The film's other big problem is in its script, or at least in its focus. Star Trek has always been an ensemble show from practically the first episode and while that can be something difficult to bring over to the big screen, the earlier Trek films had managed the transition smoothly by focusing on the core characters (Kirk, Spock and McCoy) while giving everyone their moment to shine. Final Frontier though focuses on the character of Captain Kirk while giving lip service to many of the others of the cast, something that perhaps isn't surprising given that William Shatner is not only the director but co-credited with the storyline the script is based on. Kirk is at the center of the action throughout as well as being a voice of sanity, sometimes absurdly so. Those familiar with Shatner's later Kirk-centric Star Trek novels will recognize many of the tropes here but whereas Shatner was kept in check more in those books, here he is given free reign to the detriment of the film.

Which brings us to the other problem with the script: its humor. Following in the wake of the whimsical Voyage Home, it was perhaps natural to try and include that kind of humor in the next film. How it was done here though comes across largely forced from bad jokes to moments that undermine much loved characters such as Uhura or Scotty (though the infamous scene of the latter hitting his head actually works quite well in context). Once the film enters its last act, the humor goes by the wayside but it effects so much of the film that it's impossible not to notice it.

Yet the film does rise above those flaws.

At its heart, despite its focus on Shatner's Kirk, the film focuses on the core relationship at the heart of the series: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Carrying on what was built in II and III, the film sees that relationship being pushed to its limits once again. This time not by a superman or by death itself but by a Vulcan seeking the answer to some of the questions we all face in our time on this planet: is there a god and where did it all start? The film features some interesting moments between the key trio that range from attempts at humor early in the film to oddly revealing as the film draws towards its finale which gives DeForest Kelly one of his strongest moments as McCoy before reaffirming it at the end. It's a film that deals with its lead characters in interesting ways when it isn't too focused on one in particular.

The other thing is that its really a film about ideas. Whereas Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett had shifted the series into more familiar action/adventure territory, Final Frontier takes it back into territory that seems like it could have been explored in the TV series potentially. The film uses the Sybok character and the quest for Sha Ka Ree raises interesting questions about the nature of belief and fundamentalism in particular that seems oddly prescient in a world dealing with religious inspired terrorism. That it also raises the question of the dangers of those beliefs while also suggesting that they are inherent part of us is also to its credit. Yet it tries to do so within the more familiar action/adventure format, something that it strives for but never quite succeeds in doing but the journey along the way is still intriguing and watchable.

In the end, Star Trek V is a flawed film. It suffers from the poorest special effects of Trek's film franchise as well as a script that overplays humor and focuses too much on one central character. Yet the ideas underpinning the film from its questions about fundamentalism and about whether a god of some kind exists are intriguing more than a quarter century after its original release. It's over-ambitious to a fault but that is more easily forgivable than a film that plays it by the book while trying to claim its something greater.

In a different world Star Trek V could have been an engaging sci-fi action/adventure film with heart but as it stands it remains the weakest of the Original Series based films but one still deserves to call itself a Star Trek film.