Kenneth Branagh brandishes an improbable mustache and suspicious accent in Murder on the Orient Express, but I have no interest in mockery. Surely one reason—not the most exalted reason, maybe, but a reason—to go to the movies is to relish the spectacle of an actor battling outlandish tricks of the trade and making them fun. Branagh understands that kind of make-believe, and he hits it on the button here.
He plays the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, and also directs the film. Poirot boards the deluxe Orient Express in Istanbul, little suspecting a passenger will die in the night and an avalanche will strand the train just long enough for the murder to be solved.
Almost everything worth anything in the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie is geared toward spectacle. You want to see ghost sharks? We have great whites and hammerheads, rotted away but still capable of taking a bite out of Captain Jack Sparrow’s dinghy. Want to see Sparrow escape from a guillotine? A rescue sends our drunken hero somersaulting while still strapped into the contraption, the blade sliding up and down toward his neck as it tumbles head over heels. Want to see an entire building dragged through the streets of a Saint Martin town while Sparrow rides it? It’s here. This movie doesn’t have much in the way of plot or character, but maybe this franchise has simply returned to its origins as a Disneyland ride: disconnected sensations, strung together at regular intervals.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a very expensive gamble on the continued life of this series, which seemed exhausted with the ho-hum On Stranger Tides in 2011.
The crucial masterstroke ofInto the Woods is that the fairy-tale happy ending comes halfway through the action. What exactly becomes of Cinderella after she settles in with her Prince? Does Jack miss the adventure of climbing up the beanstalk? Does Little Red Riding Hood ever dream about the Wolf? Such questions fuel the wickedly amusing 1987 Broadway musical, with songs by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.
Cue the irony, then, that Sondheim’s sly modern classic has been taken up by Disney, history’s busiest purveyors of the happy ending. Sondheim and Lapine were both involved in the film, and if many things have been cut or altered, a bit of a subversive message still peeks through (and some key characters die along the way). Into the Woods presents a crowded roster, with Meryl Streep earning top billing as the Witch, the blue-haired crank who sets things in motion. Streep’s opening scene is pretty glorious, as the actress stalks around the Baker’s shop, spitting out the backstory and laying down a curse.
Inside Transcendence is a 1950s B-movie, desperately trying to get out. A tale of a scientist poisoned by radiation, his brilliant mind passed on to survive after his death? That could easily be the plot of an atomic-era cheapie.
This movie, however, is distinctly of the 21st century. And expensive. The scientist is Will Caster (Johnny Depp), and he’s been working on a way to upload the human brain into a computer system. With the help of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), both scientists themselves, he achieves this goal. Because of the terminal illness, the experiment turns to Caster’s own brain.
The film makes a stab at big subjects: There’s a “neo-Luddite” group running around trying to stop technology, and a giant complex out in the desert for the machines needed to handle cyber-Caster’s new artificial intelligence. Can this entity become a new god on the Earth, capable of healing the sick and joining together all life at the cellular level? And can it do anything about the cable-TV monopolies?
Alas, these questions are less enthralling than they might sound.
Is there anything as surefire as the William Tell Overture? I mean, who messes that up? Whatever the Disney people do with the new big-budget version of The Lone Ranger, at least they’ll get the famous music right, right? Well, funny story. The music—and so many other things—are all wrong about The Lone Ranger, a mechanical contraption that never decides what it wants to be. The Lone Ranger’s squeaky-clean image and code of behavior are hopelessly square for the 21st century, but the movie hasn’t come up with anything viable to replace what worked in those thrilling days of yesteryear.
The casting is promising: Johnny Depp is Tonto, which means the masked man’s Indian sidekick is not a sidekick anymore. (Somewhere, Jay Silverheels is smiling—top-billed at last.) And Armie Hammer, who played the computer-generated twins of The Social Network, has the strong jaw and straightforward manner for a credible John Reid, aka the Lone Ranger. As it happens, Hammer plays the tenderfoot card and not much else, while Depp is busy doing his actorly fiddling. We first meet Tonto in old age, recalling his past glories (this is merely the first echo of Little Big Man), but for most of the film Depp is covered in tribal makeup, fur, and a dead crow he wears atop his head; it’s hard for his impish personality to break the surface.
Dark Shadows (Warner) is by definition a big screen remake / revival of the late 1960s gothic soap opera, an actual daytime serial that took a turn into a world of vampires, witches, werewolves, curses, and other romantic old-school horror movie staples.
It is by nature, however, a trip to Tim Burton-land, where families learn to embrace the eccentric and the weird as part of their definition and gain strength from their differences. Though ostensibly built on characters and plots from the old TV series, it has very little to do with the show and everything to do with Burton’s affection for the ghoulish and the goofy, especially when they come wrapped together.
Dark Shadows was largely dismissed is a frivolous exercise in style and Burton excess when it was released but at heart it’s another Burton family of eccentrics that finds itself when it embraces its difference, thanks to the arrival of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, once again committed to the Burton vision). Cursed to be a vampire but inspired to raise up the Collins family name, and in the process the fractured Collins family itself, it flirts with tragedy but is more committed to the comedy of life… or resurrection, as it were.
There’s a sense of play in every Burton film, but when he puts it in the service of real family values – parental commitment, paternal protectiveness, a nurturing of the individualism that comes with rebellion – he can deliver something quite special. Think Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice or Ed Wood.
When a director throws a cinematic frame around an actor, literally dictating how audiences will see the man or woman caught in the camera’s gaze, that’s real power—and it can be a form of possession. The high-voltage connection—between a filmmaker’s visual imagination and the performer who brings it to life—can be mutually productive, a fertile collaboration that encourages director and actor to be better than they are alone.
Working together again and again may become an act of love or lust, deep friendship, even a form of creative rivalry. Such relationships may continue for years, each film building on previous stories and characterizations, so that every movie is deepened by accumulated meta-cinematic awareness. The movies may literally come to be about the director and actor(s) who make them.
As alter ego or avatar, the actor may serve as a projection of the directorial personality set exhilaratingly free to play in worlds created and populated by the master designer. Or maybe the performer just looks the part, his or her physicality the perfect expression of the director’s chosen genre, visual style or philosophy.
An actress may so capture the director’s imagination that she becomes muse, both the subject of his fictions and object of his desire. Such collaborations can be wildly creative, especially when Galatea challenges her Pygmalion by acting out on her own, upping the ante on aesthetic-sexual tension. On the dark side, such couplings can turn obsessive, even murderous. In cases like these, a movie can become a weapon, a form of assault.
Check out ten of our favorite actor-director collaborations, each of which has produced a host of memorable movies.
1. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton
Tim Burton, wild-haired master of dark, kinky fictions, is nobody’s idea of Johnny Depp’s twin brother. But the intense and quirky actor has become Burton’s doppelganger, projecting the wide eyes, fixed gaze and rictus smile of a vulnerable or deranged innocent abroad, often traumatized by cruel parents, unsuited for the real world. (That look can be traced back to the possessed tot in Burton’s 1982 animated short Vincent.) If Johnny Depp hadn’t existed, Burton would have had to invent him, as Vincent Price does in Edward Scissorhands, perhaps the director’s finest, most personal film. With his gift for shaping exquisite forms, Depp’s androgynously beautiful, pointy-haired naïf might have had the makings of a cinematic genius. His weirdly imaginative “cuts” first make him a star, then an outcast. It’s the Romantic paradigm of the misunderstood artist—or misfit child—eternally out of sync with the philistine masses. Freaks and failures every one, from the cross-dressing Ed Wood, a movie-mad, spectacularly untalented boychik churning out dreck—and resurrecting Dracula—in his studio-playhouse; to Willy Wonka, who, deprived of sweets as a child by a punitive dad, becomes lunatic puppetmaster in a killer eye-candy factory; to vengeful Sweeney, using his barber’s scissors to turn the world into abattoir. Channeling Burton’s sexually and spiritually arrested “children,” forever youthful Depp embodies Scissorhands’ existential dilemma: “I’m not finished.” Safe to say that diagnosis also applies to 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, reborn to play in Burton’s Dark Shadows.